Growing up on Lake Kariba, Rhodesia

Updated on December 12, 2019

Lake Kariba, Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) aka Kariba Dam

Kariba dam wall with all four turbine gates open
Kariba dam wall with all four turbine gates open

A man made lake

Lake Kariba, also referred to as Kariba Dam, is a "man made lake" as it formed after the Zambezi river was dammed in to build a hydro electric station to supply electricity to both Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and Zambia. The lake averages between 2 miles (3.2km) and 20 miles (20km) in width and is roughly 180 miles (290km) long. Its many changing moods and weather conditions, and its sheer size, saw it often referred to as an inland sea, although it is a fresh water body. Construction on the Kariba Dam wall began in 1955 and was completed in December 1958.

Growing up on the Lake

The view of the lake from the driveway of our Kariba  house
The view of the lake from the driveway of our Kariba house

While I did not "grow up" on the lake, per say, I nevertheless spent at least a couple of days on the lake each fortnight, and if there is ONE word that best describes those experiences, it would be EXCITING. Lake Kariba was a paradise and a play ground and a battle field and food for the soul and a scary place to be, depending on the day.

Frolicking in the calm waters and island hopping

Me, my uncle, his wife and my dad enjoying a swim on the beach of a small island near Anchorage
Me, my uncle, his wife and my dad enjoying a swim on the beach of a small island near Anchorage

There were the quiet days of bonding with family or friends while basking in the warm sunshine and frolicking in the calm waters along the shores of one of those tiny little islands of rock with their beaches of tiny shells; one cannot swim on the actual shores of Lake Kariba due to the threats from crocodiles and bilharzia, but the islands were safe from bilharzia and there were many known to locals to be croc free, and these would often be our lunchtime destination.

My dad and me lazing in the waters on the shore of one of the little islands
My dad and me lazing in the waters on the shore of one of the little islands

Spurwing Island

One of the most popular islands was Spurwing Island, which featured Spurwing Lodge, where day trip visitors could enjoy the hospitality of the lounge and restaurant and also a swimming pool and other facilities. It was a favourite destination for families and social groups, and was a place where we regularly met with friends or took family and friends, and I have great memories of fun shared while feasting together over lunch, including many Christmas luncheons or New Year's dinners and, of course, to celebrate birthdays.

Christmas luncheon at Spurwing Island with family and friends
Christmas luncheon at Spurwing Island with family and friends

Amazing, sometimes scary animals

The fishing was never exactly boring, but even the excitement on a day with a catch of two dozen good size bream could be topped off when, with out warning, a buffalo might come crashing through the bush of what we thought was a small island of grass, aim straight for our boat, and literally jump right over it, to the shock of my dad, indignation of my mum, and awe of me.

It was NEVER boring when the hippos were around, and even my adrenaline loving dad got nervous when there was a newborn spotted in the bloat. Hippopotami are right up there with the world's most deadly creatures, and are Africa's most deadly mammal (yep; more dangerous than lions, elephants and rhinos), killing almost 3000 people each year.

A hippo eyeballing us
A hippo eyeballing us

Floating logs

Nothing could get the heart pumping like when we would hap upon a large crocodile, one of which I will never forget due to it being BIGGER than dad's 21ft Ventura, which dad insisted on trying to wake by revving his large outboard motor, sending large waves the croc's way while it deigned to notice us (or pretended to sleep while it waited for us to move closer according to my increasingly unimpressed mum that day).

A crocodile on the banks of Lake Kariba
A crocodile on the banks of Lake Kariba
My dad's 21ft Ventura motor boat, was called KCK, the initials of his 3 daughters.
My dad's 21ft Ventura motor boat, was called KCK, the initials of his 3 daughters.

African Elephants

Elephants were almost always spotted on shore whenever we were on the lake.
Elephants were almost always spotted on shore whenever we were on the lake.

I relish the memory of the awe I would feel whenever sitting quietly with a line in the water while watching a large bull elephant who would eye us curiously after deciding he would feast on some floating lake weed only meters from our boat.

Up close and personal
Up close and personal

Incredible Lake Crossings

Of course, who could forget the "Crossing of the Lake" when herds of elephants decided to make the dangerous crossing to new pastures. I remember more than once the overwhelming emotions of watching their journey progress from a respectful distance, and seeing the stragglers start to struggle just over half way across, at which point all the human spectators among the flotilla of fishing boats and pleasure craft would start to call out encouragement, tentatively at first, but then with more and more enthusiasm when, whether due to fear or a deeper knowing that was welcomed and appreciated, our calls corresponded to a renewed effort, with aunts turning to help nursing cows push the babies along by submerging their trunks to lift and push from behind, sharing the exhaustion just when we thought mother and baby would be lost to the depths. The strange fluid that would leak from my eyeballs as we watched them make landfall, the collective cheer of the humans broadcasting triumph for the herd, who would turn to watch as if they were the actors of a play.

Elephants swimming across the lake
Elephants swimming across the lake

African Fish Eagles

The excitement I expressed as a child whenever I heard the cry of a fish eagle or spotted a pair near their nest or witnessed a successful hunt and dive was contagious according to Uncle H, and I will always long to hear that call, and forever be amazed at my reaction to hearing that call again back in '97 for the first time in over a decade; goosebumps ran up my neck and shoulders and I burst into tears, so moved was I.

The call of a fish eagle can induce strong emotions in me.
The call of a fish eagle can induce strong emotions in me.

Kariba Tiger Fishing Tournament

Tiger fishing up one of the gorges never saw a dull moment, but thankfully only required a subsequent trip to the hospital on two occasions that I remember. Gotta watch out for those teeth.

Unfortunately, I was always too young back then to accompany my dad and his mates when they went off for the annual International Kariba Tiger Fishing Tournament, but I was always impressed with the trophies they brought home.

My dad and his mates and their haul of trophies one year.
My dad and his mates and their haul of trophies one year.

Fantastic Bream Fishing

But fishing for bream was the best because Kariba bream were so plentiful and are absolutely delicious. We used to have bream for breakfast, lunch and dinner when we were up in Kariba. And boy did I love fishing with my dad. Those days spent fishing on the lake with my mum and dad and Uncle Henry (and often other friends and family who came to stay with us while on holiday in Zim) led to me developing Obsessive Compulsive Fishing Disorder, methinks...

Dad with a caught bream
Dad with a caught bream

The calm before the storm

Friends never believe me when I tell them of the times when we were caught out by a sudden change in weather while fishing on the other side of the lake, where the usual hour it took to eat up the dozens of miles of open water on the trip back to harbour would stretch to 3 or 4 hours of terror navigating waves almost twice as high as our boat was long and hoping the fuel wouldn't run out before we made sight of land and that we would not get zapped by any of the lightning bolts that flashed so close that the hairs on our arms stood straight up.

While Lake Kariba was often akin to an inland sea of glass, sudden thunder storms could whip up massive waves sometimes 40ft high.
While Lake Kariba was often akin to an inland sea of glass, sudden thunder storms could whip up massive waves sometimes 40ft high.

Swimming in the middle of the lake

But lake storms were the exception. Most often the excitement came from the childish fears I felt when swimming in the middle of the lake where we were safe from crocodiles and Bilharzia, but where my imagination always ran wild thanks to my Uncle T and Uncle H always telling me of the river god serpent, Nyami Nyami, which I ever hoped to meet even while I tried to keep my horror at bay over the thought that my toes were about to be munched on by a sneaky Zambezi shark that had found itself on the wrong side of the turbines when the dam wall went up.

Swimming in Lake Kariba was restricted to the middle of the lake or on the shores of one of the lake's islands, due to the threat of crocodiles and Bilharzia
Swimming in Lake Kariba was restricted to the middle of the lake or on the shores of one of the lake's islands, due to the threat of crocodiles and Bilharzia

Nyami Nyami - The River God Serpent

The Nyami Nyami, the River God and serpent spirit of the Zambezi River
The Nyami Nyami, the River God and serpent spirit of the Zambezi River

Strict Border Control

And of course, the was the anxiety that remained long after the time we stopped off for a swim late one afternoon, only to find the boat would not start, an inconvenience that turned into a rather desperate situation when the evening "sea breeze" sprung up, slowly but inexorably pushing us into Zambian waters, closer and closer to shore, with my dad setting me on the bow to act as spotter, ordering me to scan the cliffs and tell him if I saw anything, then not liking it when I reported the 2 snipers who had materialized out of nowhere, apparently intending to make themselves known to us in warning. I was then left speechless, fearful for my mum who, after sharing one of those looks they always shared, suddenly dove into the croc infested waters and proceeded to start "towing" the boat after fashioning a sort of shoulder harness for herself, a colossal task which she carried out with a level of courage and determination I had not thought existed considering her frequent leaps onto a table or chair amid shrieks and screams at the mere sight of a spider.

Progress away from the shore was almost imperceptible and any pause to catch her breath saw us reverse direction, yet I was forbidden to help and dad and Uncle H were still working frantically on the engine, having diagnosed the problem and needing to get creative to MacGyver a fix. The collective sigh of relief was followed almost instantly by whoops of joy when dad finally got the motor to roar to life, literally in the nick of time, as Uncle H had spotted a "floating log" and mum had been told to get back to the boat, and was hoisted over the side before even attempting to go around and climb up the ladder at the stern. We finally puttered into harbour that evening using a torch to navigate to our jetty.

The Zambezi River, including Lake Kariba, forms part of the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe
The Zambezi River, including Lake Kariba, forms part of the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe | Source

African Traffic Jams

Even so, all was topped by what might seem like an anticlimax most days, something faced by so many town and city dwellers; the traffic jams that inevitably accompany rush hour, but with a unique Kariba twist: a 5pm traffic jam on the way back from Anchorage was almost exclusively caused by one or more elephants making their daily trip back to wherever they went at night. Why cut a road of your own or follow a favoured game trail when you have the opportunity to enjoy the convenience of traveling on a well maintained road obviously built for no other reason than the enjoyment of your species?

Elephant delays again in Kariba...
Elephant delays again in Kariba... | Source

We always laughed at the way those massive creatures refused to take even the slightest notice of the noisy vehicles lined up behind them, no matter how often some senseless bus or truck driver would beep his horn at them in a futile attempt to get them to move over so the humans could pass. Kariba and everyone and everything that called it home kept to a different time than the rest of the world.

Heavy traffic in Kariba
Heavy traffic in Kariba | Source

Never to be forgotten

The life and death adventures held on Lake Kariba and the lazy pace of life on its shores will never be forgotten. Rhodesia will always live on in my heart.

Postcards from Lake Kariba

A few more snapshots

One of my dad's boats
One of my dad's boats
Me wearing my Spurwing Island T-shirt and my friend, Otto.
Me wearing my Spurwing Island T-shirt and my friend, Otto.
Dad teaching me to drive his boat
Dad teaching me to drive his boat
No talking while the fish are biting...
No talking while the fish are biting...

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