A wonderful surprise: Lake Kariba

Following the Tazara debacle, we sat recouping – and madly working – in Lusaka for days.  I received an email from the editor of a travel magazine I write for, asking if I’d ever been to a Lake Kariba, because they’d be interested in a feature about it. Not only had I never been to Lake Kariba, I didn’t even know where it is.  A quick Google search later, it turned out we were three hours away from the world’s biggest man-made lake… and that it’s extraordinarily beautiful, at that.

Naturally, we had to visit, and at midnight on Friday we were haggling with local car-owners to find someone who would get us to Kariba the next morning. (No public transport).

We set off on Saturday morning, and soon found out that the further you drive into the interior of Zambia, the more stiflingly, scorchingly hot it gets. The road to Kariba is long, mountainous, winding, and at this time of year completely charred to the ground, with sad stick-ish trees littering the mountainsides.

As an aside, the driver we had found to take us had brought a friend along, and much to our amusement, the pair of them seemed far more excited about the little jaunt than we were.  Radio turned up to max, they kept on bursting into song – whether rap, pop, or hiphop – and filmed most of the 3 hour journey on their mobile phones.

After 3 hours of sweating in a car which was equally hot regardless of whether the windows were open or closed, we arrived at a lake which, to be honest, taught us exactly what it feels like to come across an oasis in the desert. Water shimmering as far as the eye can see.

Our driver mates ran off to photoshoot the shores of the lake, and happily went paddling, we checked into our waterfront room, and sought out the lakeside shack which was the bar, to snack on whitebait and an ice-cold beer.

After the journey we’d had, the afternoon was for wallowing in the pool, the evening for watching the sun go down, and sitting in the absolute pitch blackness that only occurs when the power goes out in the African wilderness.  Under the sky, a million miles away from everything.

In the morning we got up to a mere 38C, and set off on our trip to the Kariba dam. Built in the 1950s by the British, the dam stretches between the Kariba gorge on the border on Zambia and Zimbabwe, and has created the largest man-made lake in the world.

With a special pass from the border station, we were allowed to walk the stretch of the dam, together with our local guide, Michael, whose grandfather had been a worker building the dam.  An astonishing sight due to its magnitude, and the water and mountains it straddles, the dam is also home to power stations on either side of the border – creating hydro-electric power for the Zambian and Zimbabwean grids.

According to Michael, the power produced is a major source of pain for the local populations who were displaced to make way for the building of the lake – contrary to promises made, the majority of power is exported and local inhabitants around Kariba are left with no, or very little, power, and at an insane cost. We were to experience this first hand, with power outages spanning hours occurring multiple times a day.

We weren’t able to stay on the dam for much longer than half an hour, due to the 45C heat – and our skin visibly burning under the sun. Ever helpful Michael tried to understand our problem, and a short visit to the local town ensued in search of suncream, which he assured us we would find in the “many lovely shops” (read: tiny shacks selling about 10 products each).

Directed to the best of these shops, we were greeted by a very friendly “pharmacy” keeper, dressed in full black tie attire. My request for suncream did not deter him, but he decided to phone a friend just to be sure.

“We have an esteemed customer here, who needs sunnycream…. I said sunnycream… SUNNYCREAM.” Obviously this wasn’t getting through.

“OK… our esteemed customer is a white lady.” (Very pink, would have been more accurate).

Much rummaging later, I was presented with a tiny vial of cream – perfect for skin bleaching, and getting rid of dark spots.

Thanking him kindly, I told him, alas, this was not quite the cream I was looking for, as I unfortunately would still burn to cinder on applying it. He understood, apologising that this quite simply is not a request that comes up every day.

Michael helpfully informed me he was sorry, but there’s not many places “selling these necessary ladies’ lotions”.

We retreated back to the pool at the lodge, and stayed there all afternoon.

In the evening the power was out, so the few lodge guests congregated by solar lamps at the bar, and we sat eating our valiantly served up burgers in the darkness, accompanied by a beautiful snow white owl swooping around in the palm trees.

On the way back to our room, we became aware that the sound of the frog choir was getting ever louder, despite the fact we were walking away from the lake. We followed the sound… all the way to our beloved pool. To find hundreds of frogs swimming in it, sitting around in, having an absolute ball.  Much to our amusement, the second we rounded the corner the choir stopped and froze stock still.  We left them be, and the choir piped up again enjoying their night at the pool.

Our last day at the lake, we worked all morning, and on the afternoon we decided to take a sunset cruise around the lake. As our boat edged up towards the dam, I couldn’t help but think of the huge drop on the other side, and the rumours of the cracks already emerging in the dam wall… I didn’t mind one bit as our boat slid back out into the middle of the lake, where we watched the fishermen setting out for their nighttime catches, and the sizzling red sun descend into darkness.

Lake Kariba, what a place.

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