Adventure Articles

Lake Kariba and the Lower Zambezi

or 'knocking back G&Ts and dodging hippos'

(Zimbabwe and Zambia)

Article and photos by Lynette Oxley

In October 1996 Paul and I had the wonderful opportunity to visit one of our favourite African countries again(!). Zimbabwe is situated close to South Africa (within easy driving distance) and offers a wide variety of adventure activities, game, birds and best of all - friendly people. Our itinerary was to travel from Johannesburg northwards towards the Beit Bridge border post stopping en-route in Messina. From there we travelled towards Harare from where we caught a charter flight to "Kiplings of Kariba" on Lake Kariba. From there another charter flight to Kariba town after which we would then catch an Air Zimbabwe flight back to Harare after we completed a canoe safari on the Lower Zambezi. The accommodation, flights and canoe safari were all organised by one of the main adventure tour operators in Zimbabwe namely Shearwater Adventures.

We left Johannesburg for Messina on a Sunday afternoon and arrived there approximately six n the evenng, only to find the accommodation we organised in town at the Impala Lily Motel was definitely not up to standard. Decent accommodation wasn't easy to be found at that time of night on a Sunday and after following signs for accommodation to outside town we found the friendly and comfortable Ilala Lodge situated on a small game reserve. Accommodation was in beautiful self-catering thatched chalets and provided us with an enjoyable overnight stay. The only problem was that no food is provided on the premises, and as we did not cater for our own food and town was a good couple of kilometres away, we decided to do without (we're tough in Africa! - Ha, ha, ha). Ilala Lodge can definitely be recommended, but remember that its self-catering - so be prepared - we'll stop there en-route next time.

The next morning we left at about six o'clock and crossed the Beit Bridge border post without incident. It is maybe pertinent to mention and warn potential travellers that on the Zimbabwean side of the border post one is met by "scam artists" who pose (although they never directly say this) as Zimbabwean officials with the necessary documentation to get through the border post. Although they are very helpful and did get us through the border post quickly it definitely wasn't worth the R50-00 (when in Africa, BARGAIN for everything) they asked for their service. They obviously have some agreement with border officials because they have a good supply of official forms but border officials denied any connections when probed. One can make use of their services - because they do help - but negotiate a price beforehand.

On our way to Harare we stopped at the famous "Lion and Elephant" for a well-deserved breakfast and a breather. Shortly after leaving here we were stupid enough to be caught in a speedtrap travelling only 10 km/h over the speed limit. The fine is a spot fine and was approximately ZIM$ 200 payable only in Zimbabwe Dollars. We hadn't had time to exchange money and had to do this at a roadside shop closeby. Officials were exceptionally friendly and courteous but insisted on Zimbabwe Dollars or for us to appear in a court.


After this we travelled without further incident to Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe. This bustling city is situated on the central plateaux and has all the characteristics of a big city - not something I personally enjoy very much. Accommodation in Harare is very expensive, especially for regional travellers. We decided to stay at one of the Holiday Inns and after negotiating the price down (see point about bargaining, above) had to cough up approximately R 560-00 for a double room. After booking into our hotel we had lunch at Sandro's with Sandro Bernadini the owner of Frontiers Adventures. Zimbabwe has some of the best beef and we had some fillet steaks with red wine and garlic sauce which were absolutely delicious.

After completing some business in Harare the next morning we left for Harare International Airport to take a charter flight to "Kiplings of Kariba".

Lake Kariba.....

Lake Kariba is actually a dam, but s most commonly called a lake because it is more like a big inland sea surrounded by mountains. It is well-known for its tiger fishing and wildlife, especially elephant, buffalo and hippopotamus. This large inland sea is situated in the Zambezi valley and is the direct result of the damming of the Zambezi River at Kariba. Kariba dam wall was finished in 1958 and has resulted in one of the largest manmade lakes in the world. The Kariba dam structure is 128 metres high and has a length along its crest of 610 metres. The actual lake was formed in 1960-61 and approximately 50 000 persons required resettling and many wild animals were evacuated during a project called Operation Noah.

A lot of controversy was created during the building of Kariba Dam when the local Batonka tribe was moved out of the Gwemba valley which was their traditional home. Legend also has it that the building of the dam wall made the Zambezi River God, Nyaminyami, (Batonka spirit of the river) cross. His displeasure was voiced by sending two record floods during the construction period of the dam which flooded the construction and nearly destroyed the growing wall. Its understandable then that the Town of Kariba is perched on the very top of the highest hills overlooking the dam. The locals feared that the dam wall might break under the pressure of the water and wanted to be well out of harms way. Fortunately, or unfortunately rather, the dam has only been full once since it was opened. During our visit Kariba was only 13 percent full.

Kiplings of Kariba.....

Kiplings of Kariba is situated at the mouth of the Ume River on the southern side of the Lake and overlooks the well-known Matusadona National Park and provides excellent views of the Lake itself.

We reached the airstrip close to Kiplings at approximately five o'clock in the afternoon. Our luggage was collected by Kiplings' vehicles while we were transported to the lake where a boat was waiting to take us for a sundowner and game viewing on Lake Kariba. Kariba still has an eery feel about it with dead trees (killed by the inital flooding of the valley and not yet rotted away) sticking out of the water providng magnificent, almost surreal, photo opportunities during sunset and sunrise. Drink in hand, we enjoyed the last flickering of the day while watching hippos, buffalo and elephant on the banks of the Lake. We arrived at Kiplings proper just before darkness set in.

First impressions of Kiplings from the Lake itself are impressive. It was designed by Ivan Pantic, a top architect. The only regret being that the water level in the Lake was so low (only 13 percent full) and it was only the beginning of the rainy season. The water had retracted quite far from the central building (holding the dining room, main deck, bar and splash pool) and the vegetation was quite dull. The central building has steep thatched roofs and all functional areas are part of a big deck overlooking the Lake which reminds one of places in the Okavango Delta. The interior of this building is tasteful and very African with large wooden sculptures (like African totems) welcoming one at the entrance.

(Picture on the left: Inside the huts!)

(Picture on the right: A view of the main building (dining room, bar, etc.)

Upon arrival we heard disaster had struck the Lodge with the loss of power due to a "gardening" mishap with the main power supply. Although partial power was regained during the course of the night, we had to do with candlelight most of the night. We were welcomed by the manager Russel Gammon and other members of his team and were escorted to our brick and thatch chalets after a drink in the pub. The design and interior of our chalet was truly exquisite and the idea of blending ones viewing deck with the bedroom and sitting room (at a higher level) caught my fancy. The bed with its massive, 4 poster, mosquito net was already turned down and looked really inviting. The chalets overlook the lake and the front is totally open in front making one feel part of nature. After a refreshing shower we made our way back to the main building for pre-dinner drinks and dinner. During dinner Russel came around to organise pre-breakfast activities the next morning. The choices included a game drive or walk into Matusadona National Park where one can see the big five or water related activities on Kariba itself or on the Ume River. A group of the guests, including Paul and I, opted for a fishing expedition (tiger and bream) on Kariba.

Picture (top left): A view of the chalet from the inside looking out!

Picture (top right): Relaxing next the splashpool with a drink at night!

Picture (bottom left): A bathroom in a chalet!

Picture (bottom right): The chalets from the front!

(Picture on the right: Fishing on Lake Kariba in the early morning). At sparrows the next morning the fishermen (generic) met for some coffee and left soon afterwards to look for the perfect fishing spot under the guidance of, Brian, our guide. We had some luck with a small tiger and several bream. Fishing on Kariba necessarily goes hand in hand with game viewing and a general appreciation of ones environment. As an avid birder, I also enjoyed the sighting of a variety of birds on our early morning excursion. We returned to Kiplings well after eight and just had enough time to have a shower, gather our bags and have a light breakfast before being transported back to the bush airstrip.

Kariba town and Kariba Breezes.....

(Picture on the left: Kariba Harbour - on the way down from Kariba town). (Picture on the right: One of the swimming pools at Kariba Breezes Hotel). Our next stop would be Kariba town and Shearwater organised a small plane to fly us to Kariba Airport. It was only during this flight that the vastness of Lake Kariba really hit us! We crossed the Lake diagonally from the Ume river mouth to Kariba Airport and it felt like we were crossing an ocean. Our pilot took us down quite low and we saw several herds of elephant in the process. This was a memorable flight with lovely scenery. We arrived at a hot (approximately 40 degrees Celsius) Kariba Airport before lunch and from there were transported to Kariba Breezes Hotel. This 2-star family hotel is the ideal, affordable base to explore Kariba Lake and its surroundings. It has comfortable rooms as well as two swimming pools, a restaurant and a bar. After settling into our room, we opted for a light lunch next to one of the swimming pools after which Shearwaters organised a tour of Kariba town, the dam wall and the harbour. Our guide "Staf" was extremely friendly and knowledgeable of the area and related some interesting stories to us. Apparently he was born in no-man's land on top of the dam wall during the construction period and was named Mustafa (hence Staf) by one of the Italian engineers who had previously worked in Ethiopia.

Kariba town is built on top of one of the surrounding hills and has some basic shops. We recommend that you take your own reading material and supplies as far as possible because there is no great variety of goods. The most interesting part of the afternoon was visiting the Kariba harbour which is filled by a wide variety of houseboats as well as "Capenta boats". Capenta or Limnothrissa mioden is tiny little fish which is caught at night (attracted by big lights suspended above the nets) on the lake for commercial use and is probably the biggest industry in town after tourism.

After our little tour we went back to Kariba Breezes for an early supper and a pre-canoe briefing. We met our Shearwater canoeing guide, Lyndan and our travelling companions, two Americans, Tina and James, after which we reorganised our baggage to take with on our canoe safari.

The Zambezi valley and the Royal Village canoe safari - Zambia ....

Our canoe safari would take us through the Zambezi valley which is one of Africa's great valleys situated in between the escarpment walls of the Matusadona. After the Zambezi leaves Kariba it initially flows northwards but after passing the Great North Road it turns increasingly east and after 150 kilometres it is impounded at Lake Cahora Bassa. The headwaters then reach westwards back to the Zimbabwean border. From Kariba, the Zambezi flows through an amazing gorge for approximately 20 kilometres. When the river escapes the confinement of the gorge, it opens into the beautiful Zambezi valley which lies at the foot of an escarpment on both sides that vary between 300 - 400 metres in height.

Lyndan, Tina and James met us at approximately eight at the entrance of Kariba Breezes the next morning. We left our excess baggage at the Shearwater office at Kariba Breezes and loaded our gear into a Landcruiser. Our Canadian-style canoes were loaded on a trailer behind the Land cruiser. These are 2-man canoes and are 5,5 metres long and 0.92 metres wide. Each canoe has 5 buoyancy tanks so the canoe doesn't sink if overturned or holed. The canoes also have seats with a backrest and canvas cushions. The paddles used are single bladed and light weight. These canoes are very stable and can apparently carry up to 450 kg with ease.

The Royal Village Safari is part of Shearwater Adventures Royal Zambezi Canoeing in Zambia.This safari starts approximately 20 kilometres down river from Chirundu, in Zambia, on the Zambezi River. One spends three days on the river and in Zambia (en-route) and two nights on this safari and covers approximately 58 kilometres. After stocking up with cooldrinks and beers (Paul) at the local shop we made our way towards Kariba dam wall and the Zimbabwe and Zambian border posts. It took some time to get through on the Zimbabwean side of the border, especially with clearing the vehicle, trailer and canoes. Once through the Zambian side of the border we proceeded towards the Kafue river. The Kafue river is one of the major tributaries of the lower Zambezi river. Other major tributaries are the Luangwa in the east and the Luapula and Chambesi in the north. The Zambezi river is the fourth largest river in Africa, after the Nile, the Zaire and the Niger. It's source is at Kalima Hill in North Western Zambia and from there flows approximately 2800 kilometres to Chince in Mozambique where it flows into the Indian Ocean. Below the Kariba dam wall the narrowest point is approximately 80 metres across and near to Chikwenya it reaches its widest point at 4.2 kilometres. A short distance just below the dam wall, the Kariba gorge is narrow and has very steep sides. The gorge is approximately 18 kilometres long and opens into a wide flood plain which continues to the Chewore river mouth where the river narrows again into the Mupata Gorge which isapproximately 46 kilometres long. Although this gorge is not as steep as Kariba Gorge its remoteness contributes to its beauty. No flooding has taken place since the wall was built and the flow of water is controlled by the wall. There are also not enough tributaries below the wall to cause flooding during very heavy rains. Rapids aren't found on this section of the river and the water is tranquil and flat all the way between Kariba and Kanyemba. The Zambezi river reaches depths of between 24-30 metres in the gorges and 150 centimetres in the flood plain areas. Many islands and sandbanks next to the river provide very good camping sites.

After approximately one or two hours drive we reached the Kafue river where we had a cooldrink and transferred to a speedboat. Our vehicle, trailer and canoes took the pontoon over and would meet us later on the banks of the Zambezi river - apparently the road to the starting point of the canoe safari is quite rough! The Kafue river is a major river and the pontoon is used to transport people, goods, and vehicles over the river. Some local entrepreneurs also transport goods and people over the river in smaller boats called banana boats - so called because of their banana shape. Lyndan explained to us that these oddly shaped boats are not very stable and that he would definitely not recommend this as a form of transport. His doubts were confirmed seconds later when one of these boats fully laden with people, goods and bicycle (worth its weight in gold in Zambia) tipped over as the pilot tried to impress the ladies on the far side of the river by making a sweeping turn. One passenger, a small boy, couldn't swim and panicked, the bicycle was claimed by the river and panic set in due to the proliferation of crocodiles and hippos in the river. The pilot of our speedboat sped over to assist the people and towed the upside down banana boat, with panic stricken locals clinging to the smooth sides, back to the opposite bank. (We heard on our return that they later recovered the bicycle - how they did this beats me).

(Picture on the right: A Whitefronted Bee-eater on the banks of the Zambezi river). We had a pleasant ride down the Kafue until it met the Zambezi. A packed lunch (including cold chicken, salad, breadrolls, etc.) was enjoyed on the banks of the Zambezi after which Lyndan gave us a safety talk as well as instructions on controlling the Canadian canoes. So off we went, paddling down the Zambezi, zig zagging from the Zimbabawean side of the river to the Zambian side of the river trying to avoid big pods of hippos and enjoying the general wildlife. We saw a wide variety of birds including large numbers of nesting (in the banks of the river) Whitefronted bee-eaters (Merops bullockoides). These birds usually enjoy wide, slow-moving rivers like the Zambezi with steep sandbanks in which they can nest. We visited the valley in September during the breeding season and small groups of these birds moved in and out of their nests continually as we paddled past. We reached our first campsite on the Zambian side of the river at approximately 5 o'clock. After being shown to our respective tents (kitted out with beds, bedding, a small table, lamps, etc.) I opted for a bush-shower while Paul tried for some Vundu (catfish) in the river. With the sun setting the resident hippos started bellowing to each other while we sat overlooking the mighty Zambezi. The campsite is situated on a small island with the only resident animals being Bushveld Gerbils (Tateraleucogaster) and birds. We enjoyed supper (spaghetti bolognaise and salad) at a table next to the river, enjoying the night sounds of the bush, after which we went to bed early.

At the campsite

Picture (top left): Tents at the camp

Picture (top right): Pathway leading down to the river from the campsite

Picture (bottom left): Supper next to the river

Picture (bottom right): Fishing for vundu at the campsite

(Picture on the right: Puku)

(Picture on the left: Carmine Bee-eater on the banks of the Zambezi)

The next morning, after a full English-style breakfast and some fishing we were on our way again. With the wind pumping away directly into our faces, we found it extremely difficult and tiring to paddle. In a Canadian-style canoe the person at the back has 80% control over the canoe. The person in front assists to keep up the momentum of the canoe and has very little control over the direction/steering of the canoe. In our case Paul provided the steering and I the momentum. Throughout the day, we had difficulty with the strong winds and Paul sometimes didn't steer the canoe very well and once we landed up underneath an overhanging thorn tree! On our way we saw and avoided large numbers of hippos and saw a wide variety of other game species. We were also extremely lucky to see one of the two Puku (Kobus vardonii) that were released on the Zambian side of the river (Paul immediately identified this very rare antelope correctly - He is an amazing source of otherwise useless information). This medium-sized antelope is golden-yellow with slightly paler sides and only the rams have short, stout, lyre-shaped, well-ringed horns. Puku are usually found on open flatland adjacent to rivers and marshes and eat mainly grasses. Throughout the day we also spotted several crocodiles and some other antelope species. The highlight of the day for me was to see the large numbers of nesting Southern Carmine bee-eaters (Merops nubicoides). These birds are highly gregarious at all times and are found in flocks of hundreds of birds. Carmine bee-eaters migrate to Zimbabwe during August, September, October and November. They breed in Zimbabwe after which they disperse to South Africa.

(Picture on the left: Taking a breather!)

(Picture on the right: Having lunch in the river!)

During the day we had a swim on one of the sandbanks in the middle of the river. It is important only to swim (wallow) in swallow water where one can see ones toenails - therefore murky water is out! This precaution is necessary at all times to avoid being eaten by one of the resident crocodiles in the river. We also had a lovely lunch laid out to us in a little bay on the Zambian side of the river by our guide Lyndan. A table and chairs were set up in the river and we had a superb cold lunch of roast beef, a variety of salads, bread and fruit. Lyndan even prepared a lovely impromptu salad dressing! After lunch we had a siesta on the banks of the river after which we had a leisurely paddle (no wind) for the last couple of kilometres to our next camping site - Pels fishing camp. The camp was named after a nesting Pels Fishing Owl (Scoptopelia peli). Built at different levels, the camp has a lovely viewing platform (over the Zambezi), an elevated dining area, a bush shower, a flush toilet and similar tents to those at the previous camp. After a shower we had dinner of chicken a'la King and vegetables with a local Zimbabwean wine. We ended the day with some coffee sitting next to a fire on the viewing platform listening to the night sounds of the bush.

At Pel's Fishing Camp

Picture (top left): Viewing platform at the camp

Picture (top right): Tents at Pel's Fishing Camp

Picture (bottom left): Supper in the elevated dining area

Picture (bottom right): The dining area - a view from below

(Picture on the left: Sunrise over the Zambezi)

(Picture on the right: Angry Jumbo in our camp)

On the last day, we woke up early to take some "sunrise over the Zambezi" photos, but the peace and quite were soon disturbed by the sounds of a trumpeting bull elephant and the camps' cook and other workers running madly towards us, shoes flying everywhere! The elephant stopped at the kitchen area still trumpeting and waving his ears in agitation after which he left the scene bypassing the supply vehicle for the camp. After the staff had caught their breaths we tried to ascertain what made the elephant so mad but according to them they were just walking down the dirt road when this elephant attacked them! According to Lyndan, some poaching still takes place inZambia, and this particular elephant might have had a close shave with a poacher before and therefore held a grudge. After breakfast the same motorboat that delivered us on the first day arrived to take us up river back to the Kafue from where our vehicle would fetch us to take us back to Kariba Breezes. We saw numerous wildlife and birds on the banks of the river with the highlight being the African Skimmer (Rhynchops flavirostris) that we saw towards the end of our trip.

During the trip we also saw some African fisheagle (Haltiaeetus vocifer), African jacana (Actophilornis africanus), Cattle egret (Bublcus ibis), Whitecrowned plovers (Vanellus abiceps), Common sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucos) and Water dikkop (Burhinus verniculatus). Among the hundreds of hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibius) that we saw we also saw large Nile crocodiles (Crocodylus nyloticus), elephants (Loxodonta Africana), Cape buffalo (Syncerus caffer) and Bushbuck (Tragelaphus scriptus).

Arriving back at Kariba Breezes, we had lunch after which we caught a flight back to Harare with many memorable days behind us!

For more information:

On Kiplings of Kariba!

the Royal Zambezi Canoe Safari!

On Kariba Breezes Hotel

On Shearwater!

E-mail us for more information!