It was created by damming Zambezi River at Kariba Gorge, for the purpose of generating hydroelectricity. The dam wall was completed in 1958 and from the same year until 1963 the lake was filled. Today it is celebrated as a Recreational Park, but the construction project was not without difficulties.
For the building work to go ahead, it was necessary to relocate the 57,000 Tonga people for whom the area of the proposed lake was home. The Tonga people objected to the plan – and understandably so, since they lived in great reverence of Zambezi River and the river-god Nyaminyami, a snake-like spirit. Despite their protestations, the project proceeded – but not before they prophesied that it would incur the wrath of their deity.
Sure enough, the construction of the wall was beset with disasters. Severe storms and flash floods swept through the valley, claiming 80 lives. The first storm had been thought a once-in-a-thousand-years occurrence, only for a second storm to break the very next year! The workers grew fearful, beginning to believe in the fury of Nyaminyami.
Nevertheless, the wall was built – only for further catastrophe to strike. As soon as the sluice gates had been slammed shut, the rising water levels within the valley caused much of the wildlife to be stranded on the shrinking islands formed by the lake. Fortunately help was at hand, as a team of fifty men was assigned to rescue the animals and release them on the mainland. This was Operation Noah and its leader was head game ranger Rupert Fothergill.
Operation Noah lasted five years, bringing to safety over 6,000 animals. Fothergill died in 1975 and his efforts are commemorated in the name of one of LakeKariba’s islands. It is uncertain why Kariba itself is thus termed. The name may be a mispronunciation of ‘Kariva’, meaning ‘trap’ and referring either to a geographical feature close to the wall – a rock that looks like a stone trap – or to the mythical rock under which Nyaminyami was said to dwell.
Lake Kariba today is a serene wildlife haven. Abundant crocodile and hippopotamus swim its waters, among over forty species of fish under the watchful eyes of bird such as eagle and cormorant. Sport fishing is just one activity available here – others include boating and viewing the game that comes to the lake to drink, much of it from neighbouring MatusadonaNational Park. And there are some truly spectacular sunsets.
The word Matusadona comes from ‘Matuzviadonha’, ‘falling dung’, referencing the sight of elephant excrement rolling down the park’s hills! Consisting of both sprawling plains and majestic mountains, this is a very scenic area boasting immense populations of elephant, lion and buffalo. It is also a sanctuary for black rhinoceros. Visitors enjoy vehicle and walking safaris, rhino tracking, and excursions to a crocodile farm.
The more interesting camps and lodges of Lake Kariba’s shoreline are located in and around Matusadona National Park. This is a truly exceptional location that works well as a stand-alone safari area, a place to relax at the end of a safari to other parts of Zimbabwe or nearby countries, or a combination of both. Whatever your reason for travelling here, you will not be disappointed!