Lake Kariba, some 280km long and up to 32km wide, was created more than 50 years ago by the building of the Kariba dam wall. Although the lake's main purpose is to generate hydroelectric power, it has become a magnet for other industries including tourism, and also supports important recreational and commercial fisheries.
Several major rivers run into the lake, including the Sanyati, Ume and Sengwa, and local rainfall can make a significant contribution. However, the lake's main catchment areas are in Angola, western Zambia.and the Barotse floodplains. Although most rainfall takes place between December and March, it takes some time for upstream floods to reach the lake, which mainly fills from April to June.
The lake itself is classified as a Recreational Park, and it is also flanked by several important wildlife areas, including the Kuburi Wilderness and Chawara Safari Area near Kariba itself, the Chete Safari Area near Binga, and - most notably - the Matusadona National Park, on the lake's southern shore some 30km south-west of the Kariba dam wall.
Commercial fishing for bream and other species is mostly confined to inshore gill-netting co-operatives. However, the Tanganyika sardine (Limnothryssa miodon), known locally as 'kapenta', was introduced several decades ago and is now the basis for an important deep-water fishery. Specialised fishing-boats were developed by the industry, and their characteristic features are a common sight on the lake.
The lake has numerous natural harbours, such as Andora and Chawara near Kariba itself; Katete, near Bumi Hills; and Binga, near the western end. However, most hotels and safari camps also maintain small natural or other harbours for use by themselves and their guests. Navigation and safety issues are the responsibility of Lake Navigation Control, under the supervision of the Lake Captain, based in Kariba.
Biologically, the lake is classified as 'oligotrophic', or nutrient-poor,
although occasional oversupplies of nutrient can lead to outbreaks of exotic
'floating aquatic plants' such as the notorious Kariba Weed (Salvinia molesta),
Nile Cabbage (Pistia stratiotes) and Water Hyacinth (Eichhornia
crassipes), all of which have become navigational hazards at various times
in the lake's history.
Private and commercial powerboats and sailboats are permitted on the lake, subject to regulations concerning surveys, equipment and competency qualifications (many honoured in the breach rather than the observance, it has to be said) laid down by Zimbabwe's Inland Waters Shipping Act. Visiting boat owners are well advised to assume a lack of knowledge of fundamentals such as right-of-way rules on the part of other craft (and sometimes the deliberate flouting of these rules).
Local regulations basically require the items dictated by responsibility and common sense, including lifejackets, fire extinguishers, compass, Kariba chart, appropriate radio equipment, balers, bilge pumps, extractor fans for inboard petrol motors, and so on. However, they also specify a yellow distress flag, at least 1m x 1m, and this is a useful addition as radio communication on the lake can be erratic.
Recreational access to the lake is also governed by the Zimbabwean Parks and Wild Life Management Authority (PWMA), who levy fees for boat launching, lake useage, Park entry, fishing, and other services. These fees can usually be paid when launching, as PWMA maintain a presence at most harbours.
Kariba is home to the annual Kariba International Tiger Fishing Tournament (KITFT), held in October. Tigerfishing is usually at its best at this time of year, although good catches can be made throughout the summer and, with perseverance, in winter as well. Other notable species include vundu, bottlenose, Cornish Jack and several bream species including the introduced Nile Tilapia (Oreochromis niloticus). Baits such as fresh kapenta can be bought in Kariba, but worms are not usually available and should be bought beforehand.
Kariba's weather is generally benign during the dry months (May-September), with clear skies and prevailing easterlies that may be replaced by localised on-shore breezes from late morning onwards. During the rainy season, however, severe storms are a frequent occurrence, with winds up to Force 8 or more, steep seas, and near-zero visibility during rainstorms. Alert skippers will detect the development of such storms well in advance, and run for shelter; if this is not possible, then stay well offshore and stream a drogue or sea anchor.
The lake may become extremely hazy during the dry season, with visibility of two kilometres or less. Visiting skippers should be conversant with the use of chart and compass, and have good pilotage skills. A GPS is useful, but should only be used in conjunction with chart and compass, and not as your prime navigational instrument.
Fuel & provisions
Neither fuel nor provisions are available except at the two major centres of Kariba and Binga. Please do not expect to buy these items at photosafari and hunting camps on the lake. Their supplies also have to be shipped from the main centres, at great cost and sometimes irregular intervals, and requests from boats that have run out of fuel, food, toilet paper, ice or other commodities through lack of forethought are not appreciated.
Access by road
Road access to pleasant lakeshore spots is notoriously difficult, except in or near Binga and Kariba. Virtually all other parts of the lake shore are only accessible by undertaking long drives over gravel or dirt roads in poor condition, and even these are few and far between. Bumi Hills, Tiger Bay and Tashinga can be accessed from the Binga-Karoi gravel road; Gache Gache Lodge either from the Binga-Karoi road or from Kariba; and Sijarira Camp, further west, also from the Binga-Karoi road.
Access by boat
A great deal easier, and much less wear and tear on vehicles and occupants, in most cases! Hence our own Best of Both Worlds tour which takes you driving to Mana Pools and boating to Matusadona, on Lake Kariba.
ZIM4X4 RECOMMENDATION: Lake Kariba is, quite simply, stunningly lovely and, like Mana Pools, is one of our 'must-do' experiences. We can take you to places like the Matusadona by road, but there's nothing that compares with getting onto the lake itself. It's a magical experience.
We'd leave the vehicles behind for a day or two, securely parked - and get onto the lake in sailboats or on a houseboat. See our Best of Both Worlds tour for more details..
Sally and I know the lake intimately, and the Matusadona shoreline in particular, as we've explored it for many years. We'll enjoy the vastness of the open lake, then show you places you've never dreamed existed - and we'll see hippos, crocodiles, birds, and wildlife, as well.