Everything You Need to Know About Lake Kariba

ELEPHANT SWIMMING, LAKE KARIBA, ZIMBABWE
••• Frans Lemmens/Getty Images

A mystic place of superlative proportions, Lake Kariba lies along the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe. In terms of volume, it is the largest man-made lake in the world, reaching over 140 miles/ 220 kilometers in length. At its widest point, it spans a distance of approximately 25 miles/ 40 kilometres - so that often, gazing over Lake Kariba feels like looking out to sea. 

History & Legends of Kariba

Lake Kariba was created after the completion of the Kariba Dam in 1959.

The dam caused the Zambezi River to flood into the Kariba Gorge - a controversial decision that displaced the Batonga tribes living in the valley. The native wildlife was also adversely affected by the sudden loss of habitat, although the damage was somewhat mitigated by Operation Noah. This initiative saved the lives of over 6,000 animals (from dangerous snakes to endangered rhinos), by using boats to rescue them when they became stranded on islands created by the rising floodwaters. 

The lake’s name comes from the Batonga word Kariva, meaning trap. It is thought that it refers to a rock that once protruded from the Zambezi at the entrance to the gorge, which was believed by the Batonga to be the home of the river god Nyaminyami. After the flooding of the valley, the rock was submerged under 100 feet/ 30 meters of water. When extreme floods damaged the dam twice during the construction process, the displaced tribes believed that it was Nyaminyami taking revenge for the destruction of his home.

The Lake’s Geography

The lake’s source, the Zambezi River, is the fourth largest river in Africa. Lake Kariba itself plunges to 320 feet/ 97 meters at its deepest point and in total covers over 2,100 square miles/ 5,500 square kilometers. It is estimated that the mass of its water when full exceeds 200 billion tons.

Kariba Dam is located at the northeastern end of the lake, and serves as a major source of electric power, both for Zambia and Zimbabwe. In 1967, huge shoals of kapenta (a small, sardine-like fish) were airlifted to Kariba from Lake Tanganyika. Today, they form the basis of a thriving commercial fishing industry. 

There are several islands in the lake, the best-known of which include Fothergill, Spurwing, Chete, Chikanka and Antelope islands. On the Zimbabwean side of the lake, there are several protected wildlife areas. The ones that most frequently feature on Lake Kariba itineraries are Matusadona National Park, Charara Safari Area and Chete Safari Area. 

Incredible Biodiversity

Before the gorge was flooded, the land that would become the lake bed was razed, releasing important nutrients into the earth - and later, the lake. This foresight is responsible in large part for the impressive biodiversity of the lake today. Along with the kapenta, several other fish species have been introduced to Lake Kariba: but the most famous of its piscine residents is the mighty tiger fish. An indigenous species, the razor-toothed tiger fish is revered around the world for its strength and ferocity.

These traits make it one of the most sought-after game fish species on the continent. 

Nile crocodiles and hippopotamuses thrive in the lake. Kariba’s fertile shores and perennial supply of freshwater also attract a wealth of game animals - including elephant, buffalo, lion, cheetah and antelope. The lake is a haven for birdlife, most of which is found along the lake shores and on its islands. Herons, egrets, kingfishers and storks are all commonly seen, while the adjoining parks offer good bush bird and raptor sightings. The air is frequently rent by the soul-shaking call of the African fish eagle. 

Top Activities on Lake Kariba

Of course, many of Kariba’s top attractions revolve around its wildlife. In particular, tiger fishing is a major draw, and many lodges and houseboats offer dedicated tiger fishing trips and/ or guides.

The most established of these will have rods and tackle for rent, but it’s always best to bring your own if you have it. In October, the lake hosts the Kariba Invitation Tiger Fish Tournament. Zimbabwe’s record tiger fish was caught at Kariba in 2001, weighing in at a whopping 35.4 pounds/ 16.1 kilograms. Tilapia and bream species complete Kariba’s fishing attractions. 

Birding and game-viewing are also popular activities on Lake Kariba. The most rewarding area for safari trips is Matusadona National Park, located on the Zimbabwe side to the west of Kariba Town. This park is home to the Big Five - including rhino, buffalo, elephant, lion and leopard. Sailing, motor-boating and various watersports are also allowed on Kariba, while the dam itself is well worth visiting. With a plunging drop into the gorge on one side and the placid waters of the lake on the other, it is as beautiful as it is impressive from an engineering perspective. 

Above all though, it is perhaps the lake’s unique scenery for which it is most famous. Drowned trees reach skywards from the depths, their bare limbs painted against the burning blue of the African sky. During the day, the lakescape is a stunning panorama of blue and green, while the sunsets double in beauty when reflected in Kariba’s serene surface. At night, the stars appear in a blaze of glory across the uninterrupted expanse of sky, their fire undimmed by light pollution. From its controversial beginnings, Lake Kariba has become a place of wonder. 

Getting There & How to Explore 

There are several towns from which to start your Kariba adventure. On the Zimbabwean side, the largest tourism center is Kariba Town, located at the northern end of the lake. At the southern end, Binga and Milibizi also offer several charter and accommodation options. On the Zambian side, the main gateways to Kariba are Siavonga in the north, and Sinazongwe further south. If you’re arriving by air, your best bet is to fly into Harare in Zimbabwe, and then transfer to Kariba Town - either by road (five hours), or by air (one hour). Note that flights to Kariba Town are charters. 

The most iconic way to explore Lake Kariba is on a houseboat. There are many different operators offering houseboats in varying states of repair, from basic self-catering options to five-star full-board charters. Houseboat itineraries usually visit several different areas of the lake, giving you the chance to see and experience as much as possible. Some houseboats also make life easier by offering paid road transfers from Harare or Lusaka in Zambia. Alternatively, there are plenty of land-based accommodation options, ranging rom campsites to luxury lodges. 

Lake Kariba Weather

Lake Kariba is generally hot all year round. The hottest weather is during the southern hemisphere summer (October to April), with peak humidity occurring with the start of the rainy season in October. The rains usually last until April. However, it should be noted that they often take the form of short, intense afternoon thunderstorms interspersed with periods of bright sunshine. During August and September, high winds often make the lake choppy. Those susceptible to seasickness should therefore try to avoid these two months. 

In terms of weather, the best time to travel is between May and July, when the weather is dry, calm and slightly cooler. Tiger fishing is good throughout the year on Lake Kariba, although the best season is usually considered to be early summer (September to December). The rainy season is best for birding, and the dry season (May to September) is best for land-based game viewing. Essentially, there isn’t a bad time to visit Kariba - there are just times that are better for some activities than others. 

Other Important Information

If you plan on fishing, make sure to arrange a permit and to familiarise yourself with the local fishing regulations. Fly-fishing from the lake shore is popular, but make sure not to stand too close to the water’s edge. Kariba’s crocodiles are wily, and not particular about their meal choices. Similarly, swimming in the lake is not advised. 

Malaria is a problem in most areas of Zimbabwe and Zambia, including Lake Kariba. Mosquitoes here are resistant to chloroquine, so you’ll need to choose your prophylactics carefully. Ask your doctor for advise about which pills to take, and any other vaccines you may need.