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The other wild side of Zimbabwe

by Hugh and Midori Paxton

In recent years Zimbabwe has consistently made headlines for all the wrong reasons: despotism, the highest inflation rate in the world, human rights abuses. You name your classic African fiasco/atrocity/act of idiocy, President Robert Mugabe’s has done it. In spades.

So why the hell, you may be wondering, should I visit the place?

Two words: Lake Kariba.

Despite the political buffoonery and turmoil elsewhere in the country, this lake, one of the largest on the African continent, remains an oasis of almost supernatural serenity and beauty. And, what with the political shenanigans and the resulting tourist flight, you won’t exactly have the whole place to yourself, but it will feel like it.

Kariba began life in 1958 with the completion of a dam described by Time magazine as “the biggest slab of masonry erected in Africa since the time of the Pharaohs.”

Prior to the dam, this area demarcating the borders of Zambia and Rhodesia (as Zimbabwe was then called), and marking the confluence of the Zambezi, Sanyati, Ume and Sengwa rivers wasn’t what could be described as a tourism hot spot.

Hot, yes. A spot, yes.

But the only visitors for a very long time were missionaries attempting to convert the local Tonga tribesman, a handful of gung-ho explorers, hunters and rugged district commissioners wearing pith helmets and covered in tsetse flies.

This changed when some bright-spark surveyors turned up and decided that a Zambezi river gorge known locally as Kariwa (meaning the trap) would make a spiffing place for the biggest dam in Africa.

The Tongas disagreed. The local river god, Nyaminyami, they explained, would be seriously irritated if anybody started mixing cement in the area and would curse all those involved.

The Tongas, as is the rule when big hydroelectric projects are involved, were ignored. And, as is also the rule, they were booted out and had their traditional lands inundated with a lot of water.

And in Kariba’s case, a lot means just that.

The lake is more than 220 km long, 40 km across at its widest point, covers 5,580 sq. km and holds approximately 180 pentagrams (which amounts to 180,000,000,000,000 kg) of water. To my regret I haven’t actually had time to weigh each one of them myself to confirm the statistic, but someone obviously did and posted the results of his labor on the Internet.

I’ll take his word for it.

The sheer weight of water (or perhaps the wrath of Nyaminyami) has since been responsible for more than 20 local earthquakes exceeding magnitude 5 on the Richter scale.

The Tongas moved to higher and drier pastures where they now do well by fishing in the lake. But the local wildlife found the whole flooding thing rather more hazardous.

As the dam filled, they congregated on increasingly fewer islands. Overcrowding became an issue. As did disorderly conduct. Leopards were teeth by jowl with bushbuck antelope and a smorgasbord of other tasty treats. Vervet monkeys and baboons clinging to the tree tops were dive bombed by eagles.

The crocodiles watched the islands shrink, bode their time, and smiled.

A gentleman named Rupert Fothergill and 10 other park wardens then stepped in with Operation Noah. His arks came in various shapes and sizes and the animals didn’t embark in orderly, biblical two-by-two fashion. They were netted, tranquilized with darts, lassoed, chased splashing through the water and rugby-tackled, but Fothergill’s small team of nature lovers was determined to get them out.

Result? A good one. Operation Noah remains the biggest animal rescue ever conducted in Africa. Much of the wildlife was relocated to the superb Matsudona National Park, which is adjacent to Kariba.

Right! History lesson over. What do you do at Lake Kariba?

Basically, anything that you want to that involves Africa and a huge body of water. Houseboats: Don’t miss ‘em. They come in various sizes accommodating from four to 44 people. If you fancy hosting a wedding party, you can actually rent a paddle steamer.

The lake has thousands of intriguing little inlets and is fringed by mountains. Waterborne exploration really is a must, be it by sailing boat, cruiser or canoe.

Of the forests that grace the shoreline, the most intriguing is at Matsudona National Park. Here is a half- submerged forest of mopane trees (Colophospermum mopane), which still stand 40 years after the valley was flooded, with thousands of branches reaching naked into the sky from their watery grave.

Fishing is also a principle lure. More than 50 species exist, including bream, Chessa, Nkupe, Cornish Jack, bottlenose, Kapenta, Vundu and the much prized tigerfish. Tigers are fundamentally composed of teeth, muscle and bad attitude. African anglers rate them as the finest freshwater fighting fish in the world, claiming Kariba’s are the biggest (but then, you should know what fishermen’s tales are like). Kariba tournaments attract throngs of guys with six-packs of beer, rods and high expectations that in fact are routinely exceeded.

Elephant, lion, buffalo, waterbuck, Duiker, leopard, jackal, impala, kudu, zebra and even the occasional black rhino can all be seen from one’s boat or on game drives. Elephants are at ease in water, and it is not uncommon to see herds of them swimming through the inlets using their trunks as snorkels.

Obviously the dam is worth a look, and the best place to do that from is from Kariba Heights, a hilly suburb of the town of Kariba that can be reached by a road that was once an elephant path.

Zimbabwean handicrafts are undoubtedly the best in southern Africa and (for sad reasons) are currently purchasable at fire-sale prices here. Also of interest is the Church of Saint Barbara, which was built by Italian laborers in memory of colleagues who lost their lives falling off the dam while at work.

The Kariba dam wall stretches over 500 meters across the gorge and contains more than 1 million cu. meters of concrete and 11,000 tons of steel. It’s a big one. No question. 128-meters high, measuring 26 meters at its base and 13-meters thick at its crest.

A couple of final points. Mugabe and his cronies may be a horrible crew, but Zimbabweans are generally lovely people — courteous, friendly and gentle — and visitors from overseas are greeted with great hospitality. So don’t let the headlines put you off. Take the plunge and try Kariba.