Lake Kariba, Past and Present.

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I have some great memories from my teenage years which originate on the enormous body of water known as Lake Kariba. It lies on the north-western margin of the country. Not many people know it but Lake Kariba is the world’s largest artificial lake and reservoir by volume with an enormous storage capacity of 185 cubic kilometers (44.4 cu mi). The enormous mass of water (approximately 180 billion tons) is believed to have induced seismicity in the faulted basin, an extension of the active East Africa rift system, including over 20 earthquakes of greater than 5 magnitude on the Richter scale (wikipedia).

Although the mean depth is only 29m it extends over an area of 5,580 square kms. I traveled the length of the lake by ferry with my family back in the early 1990’s.

Map of Zimbabwe showing location of Lk Kariba

plan map of Lk Kariba, adjacent National Parks, towns, roads and national borders.

The building of the Lake Kariba was a huge undertaking over the half-decade 1955 to 1959 at a cost of USD 480 million – goodness only knows how much that would be in today’s monetary terms. As a comparison, expansion of Kariba South (Kariba South Extension), which will add an additional 300 MW capacity, is expected to cost between USD400 and USD533 million. This is in large part being financed by China Export and Import Bank (China Eximbank) who are providing a loan of USD320 million (allAfrica.com, victoriafalls24.com).

A perusal of material on the popular public domain video-streaming website Youtube has a few snippets of footage from the construction and the various challenges that arose as a consequence of the damming effort, including the controversial resettlement of a significant population of BaTonga tribespeople.

A brief synopsis of this policy is reviewed in the video below by Rudo Sanyanga of the organisation International Rivers. In it she makes repeated reference to the men without knees, with apparent reference to those Europeans involved in the Kariba dam project. If you are reading this and have some insight I would be curious to know the origin of this unusual metaphor.

A clip from Operation Noah, co-ordinated by Rupert Fotherghill, from the archives of British Pathe:

Whatever the controversy and cost of building the dam, once it was realised, there were economic derivatives, namely:

*Hydroelectricity: The dam was built first and foremost as a means to generate power by harnessing the energy of a controlled flow of water passing through turbines beneath the dam wall. Consequently the two hydroelectric stations in this vicinity (the north and south stations respectively) are vital power sources for Zambia and Zimbabwe.The Zimbabwean hydropower station (south station) is currently being upgraded as detailed above.

*Fisheries: The introduction of several commercial species including the Tanganyika Sardine or kapenta, actually a small, planktivorous, pelagic, freshwater clupeid originating from Lake Tanganyika in East Africa (wikipedia). It is an important source of protein for many people in the region. It is usually salted and dried in the baking hot sun of the Zambezi Valley. I have eaten the refrigerated kapenta (a little more expensive than the dried variety if bought from a retailer) and it’s really quite palatable. It is best prepared by a cook on one of the houseboats which ply the waters of the lake (see below).

Other commercial species include fresh-water crayfish and introduced Tilapia sp. which are farmed in large, submerged cages. The latter is a 15,000-ton yield per annum industry (Encyclopaedia Britannica)

*Tourism: Lake Kariba is flanked by a number of National Parks and safari areas e.g Matusadona NP, Chete and Charara Safari Areas; as well as sparsely-populated communities of people, some resettled from that area of the valley flooded by the lake today. The consequence of this is a shoreline populated with abundant wildlife. The populations of most are directly influenced by hunting and poaching pressures e.g. elephant and large antelope. Other species like buffalo have proven susceptible to the rise and fall of the water level of the lake and the influence that the lake level has on the amount of and quality of the grass for grazing (torpedo grass, Panicum repens).

There are safari lodges, hotels and camps in the proximity of the lake which give access to the local wildlife (National Park site) although many tourists, domestic especially, chose to enjoy the luxury of a houseboat from which almost any spot on the lake edge is accessible.

It is this mode of tourism that I remember best. What follows is a gallery of photos from various trips there over the years and an extract from a chapter I wrote on my childhood in Zimbabwe (unpublished):

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The Driftwood: a diesel-engine boat capable of cruising the lake in most conditions.

The Driftwood: a diesel-engine boat capable of cruising the lake in most conditions.

It was the ultimate leisure activity in Zimbabwe, and probably still is, to float around on Lake Kariba with a hold full of larger and soft drinks and plenty to eat, and to fish for the multitude of species which frequented the waters of the huge artificial reservoir, 280 kilometers long, constructed in the mid to late 1950s. Prized amongst the fish was the razor-toothed Tiger Fish which predates on many of the smaller species, especially the sardine that had been introduced from Lake Tanganyika, known locally as Kapenta. Only when my father’s law firm had acquired shares in one of the houseboats, the Driftwood, moored in one of the marinas in Kariba township, did we start spending holidays there as well.

Bull elephant on the shores of the lake. A common sighting from the boat.

Bull elephant on the shores of the lake. A common sighting from the boat.

It really was a magical place where one could see a variety of wildlife: enormous herds of buffalo, some of the largest in Africa, but prone to fluctuate in step with the variation in the water level; numerous elephant which would amble slowly along the shoreline and were visible from miles away; pods of hippopotamus in the quieter bays, lagoons and river mouths; herds of impala antelope; groups of waterbuck and birds too numerous to mention.

A typical bay in one of the more secluded areas of the lake, probably within the mouth of one of the many tributaries which run down from the escarpment.

A typical bay in one of the more secluded areas of the lake, probably within the mouth of one of the many tributaries which run down from the escarpment.

As a reminder of its recent past as a river ecosystem and not a lacustrine one, the perimeter of the lake was dotted with the numerous skeletal remnants of trees drowned when the river was dammed, except in the few bays where they had been cleared or where the ground was too steep. The ironwoods were most prominent because, as their name suggests, they are the most resilient of the natural timbers.

The old  lignified remnants of trees reach upward from the surface of the dam in many of the bays. It's their submerged remnants which provide the greatest hazard.

The old lignified remnants of trees reach upward from the surface of the dam in many of the bays. It’s their submerged remnants which provide the greatest hazard.

The pilots of the boats knew the waterways intimately, which never ceased to amaze me, considering the extent of the shoreline and how the appearance of these dead and sometimes treacherous trees would change as the water level fluctuated. We had hit the occasional stump lying just beneath the waterline whilst chugging along separately in the fishing tender boats which were towed along behind the main houseboat to the mooring spots; fortunately we never capsized although one or other of the tenders had been stuck for a while on one I seem to remember.

One of the two tender boats which serviced the Houseboat. You simply had to tie up to a dead tree trunk or stump at a prospective fishing spot.

One of the two tender boats which serviced the Houseboat. You simply had to tie up to a dead tree trunk or stump at a prospective fishing spot. From left to right: Ivan, me, Dan, my father.

A few exceptional memories stick out in my mind: the first is of a lion kill we witnessed first-hand on the banks of the Sanyati Bay where the victim was one of the multitude of buffalo. After a slight commotion the rest of the herd had continued grazing nearby as if nothing were amiss whilst the lionesses pinned their prey to the ground and slowly suffocated it. The old male of the pride had been in no great hurry to get there, giving an occasional roar as he sauntered over to the kill whereupon his bevy of females had moved to one side; truly ‘the king of the jungle.’

This had been before the buffalo population had crashed, in part due to a deadly outbreak of anthrax but of greater severity to them, the rising of the waters after record rainfall in the upper catchment leading to the loss of the torpedo grass habitat on which they so depended for grazing. It was recognised as a boom and bust cycle and today the population is rapidly increasing once again.

My grandparents don lifejackets before hopping aboard one of the tenders for an afternoon/evening game-viewing session.

My grandparents don lifejackets before hopping aboard one of the tenders for an afternoon/evening game-viewing session.

Another memory is of seeing a cheetah, released from a boma at Tashinga National Parks camp. This was a rare sighting, because cheetahs are Africa’s most fragile big cat species. I had never seen one in the wild before so this was exciting. Whilst my brothers, my father and I were out fishing, my mother, who was sitting on the deck of the boat, had witnessed something very unusual: one of the cheetahs making a kill. The prey this time had been an impala antelope and it had been killed right at the water’s edge she told them on their return. What had happened next was, in some ways, as remarkable.

The pilot of the boat and the cook had quietly disembarked the tethered vessel and alighted on the shore. Before my mother had realised their intentions they had shooed the poor cheetah, still not fully adult, off the kill and proceeded to lop off a hind quarter from the impala with a machete. By the time we returned it was dusk and the cheetah may not have come back to claim the kill before the other scavengers arrived: the jackals and hyenas.

The other memory that is seared into my mind was on another occasion when we had been accompanied by friends from the UK, Meg and Guy Applebeck and their daughter Mia. Us boys, our father and Guy were on the fishing tenders near the holiday lodge known as Tiger Bay which lay slightly inland of the Lake on the Ume River, accessible to houseboats for some distance. Not only was the river renowned for excellent fishing but there was good wildlife along its banks too.

On that particular afternoon we had been fishing peacefully in a small inlet not a stone’s throw from Tiger Bay when a large male waterbuck had come down to the water to drink. The serenity of the scene was shattered by an enormous explosion in the vicinity of the waterbuck as a mighty Nile Crocodile burst out of the shallows and clamped his sizeable jaws onto the upper leg of the antelope. He must have been a very big croc, because the end of his tail was a good ten feet away from his snout. The waterbuck did his best to resist but the leviathan slowly but surely started dragging him through the shallows towards deeper water.

A later fishing trip with my mother's sister Tess and her family. Here my uncle Keith sits between the captain, Bruno (L), and  Philemon, a young lad from Harare.

A later fishing trip with my mother’s sister Tess and her family. Here my uncle Keith sits between the captain, Bruno (L), and Philemon, a young lad from Harare. It was a spot just like this from which we witnessed the attack on the waterbuck with Guy.

We had all been too amazed and overawed by the spectacle to do anything at that point, but suddenly Guy became animated: “Quick, quick, we must save it” he had shouted. It was widely held and indeed decreed that people should not interfere with the acts of nature, no matter how distressing events may be, but it was too awful for us to contemplate doing nothing to help the afflicted waterbuck.

We fired up the engine and approached cautiously. Had we not interfered the croc probably would have had his way and drowned the animal but our encroachment caused it to act hastily and it had rolled over and torn the entire hind leg off the buck before retreating silently into the depths from which he had come. The waterbuck, never uttering so much as a cry, had staggered out of the water on three legs, standing proudly on the bank, its nose quivering, but unable to go much further.

The wound had to be mortal considering how much flesh had been rent from its body exposing the delicate entrails to infection, if it did not succumb to blood loss or predation by other beasts before that happened. We had approached the proprietor of Tiger Bay and implored him to go and put the animal out of its misery but he pointed out that it was a National Parks area and shooting an animal, even a fatally wounded one, was not permitted.

We returned to the houseboat solemnly. I remember Guy muttering darkly about the vileness and under-handedness of the crocodile, but that was what they had done for countless millennia; who were we to pass judgement? Both crocodilian and mammalian had lived side by side well before man had inhabited that environment. Most likely the antelope had become a meal for other meat-eating animals, whether lions or dedicated scavengers like the hyena, we would never know. This was way of the wild and it was harsh and unforgiving.

The houseboat years were some of the best I can remember from my time as an adolescent. There were trips to the Eastern Highlands and elsewhere but Lake Kariba was where we had best enjoyed time as a family.

One took these sunsets for granted when on the lake.

One took these sunsets for granted when on the lake.

 

2 thoughts on “Lake Kariba, Past and Present.

  1. Note from author: Tafadzwa Mahere, former researcher, Department of Biological Sciences, University of Zimbabwe writes the following as regards the viability of the kapenta fisheries (pers comm):
    The results of my study, which I did in 2011, suggested that the kapenta industry was still viable. All the companies regardless of size or type recorded a gross margin per dollar spent greater than US$1. The profitability of the kapenta industry were largely influenced by company size, catch size and catch share of companies regardless of whether companies were private or non-private. In 2011, the large-sized companies recorded higher total revenues and gross margins than the smaller sized companies. However, the smaller sized companies realised more revenue and profit per rig than the larger sized companies. An assessment of the gross margins per dollar spent suggested that the smaller sized companies, which mainly comprise the indigenous operators and cooperatives were more viable. Large-sized companies have higher gross margins than small companies due to the economies of scale advantages that larger firms have. However, the advantages may cease and reverse due to problems associated with large scale operations. These problems include poor labour relations, macroeconomic challenges such as accessibility and import restrictions on infrastructural components and machinery needed to boost catches. The study noted that while larger-sized kapenta companies recorded higher gross margins as a porportion of total variable costs, they recorded a markedly lower gross margin as a proportion of total fixed costs which may indicate poor industrial capacity-utilisation.

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