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Lake Kariba (Zimbabwe) Doomed Vacation Paradise Or On Hold?

To be honest this vacation paradise has been doomed and unused for the last five years plus. I was there in September 2004 and how quiet it was, which was great for us, but not for the local and Zimbabwean economy. Can you imagine being in the heart of the African wilderness, nothing around but a huge expanse of water, mountains and the knowledge that on shore there are really naturally wild animals? For me, Lake Kariba is the home of the “Houseboat”. Ever since I was in my teens I had heard of these houseboats. A floating holiday on a huge expanse of water. What I did not know was the size of these floating hotels and how large Lake Kariba really is. At a vast majority of our ports of call all you can see on the horizon is water.

Landing at Harare airport is much like arriving at any third world airport. Not too much different nowadays to the first world except being a lot smaller. The drive, in convoy to Kariba was pretty exciting due to the knowledge of the turmoil in the country and not knowing what to expect, although we did have some locals with us and they assured us that it would be fine. What a change though having been in Zimbabwe seven years prior, the degradation had taken its toll. Most service stations closed, fenced and locked- waiting for fuel. Driving through the countryside, desolate farms, barns with only shells, the timber and roofing scavenged for creating makeshift houses (shacks). Once a thriving farming country now reduced to a subsidence-producing nation. The drive to Kariba takes about 5 hours. Three hours plus out of Harare you enter the national park. Wow – no fences and the game is plentiful.

Turning off the main road, otherwise you end up in Zambia, is truly amazing. Don’t drive too fast as you are now really in the wilds with. We saw elephant aplenty, giraffe and lots of buck. Also the scenery is picturesque, winding down through hills and mountain passes, flat landscapes with the famous African bushveld and still knowing that you will be enjoying the next ten days on a fully catered for houseboat cruise – paradise. Driving through the last mountain pass and seeing the vast expanse of Lake Kariba is magnificent. I could not believe that it was so vast, also around the town of Kariba and towards the wall are mountains overlooking the water. The scenery is breathtaking.

I expected the houseboat to be small, old and dilapidated. What a surprise when I saw it and the crew of four, waiting with the welcoming drinks. It is hot, very hot. The houseboat has one floor at water level and one upstairs. Downstairs are the four cabins, kitchen (galley) and storerooms. Upstairs a vast entertainment area come dining room all under an awning with the sides open, the bridge where the captain drives the boat and then in front in the open is this plunge pool. Two tender boats get towed behind this massive house on the water powered by a huge diesel engine.

Once all the luggage, food and drinks were loaded the captain cruised us out of the mini harbour. I had often heard of Lake Kariba and the vast expanse of water, now sitting in the pool in the front of the houseboat, cooling down with an ice-cold beer, I could not believe the size of the Lake. We cruised out of the harbour into the open water and it was vast. The African landscape on the Zimbabwean side is picture perfect with the mountains sharply descending to the lake around the town of Kariba and towards the wall. South of Kariba town the mountains are further back from the lake and descend gradually towards the African bushveld which eventually the shore. An hour later and still in the pool relaxing with ice cold beers not too far away, we are warned to put on sunscreen protection from the harsh African sun and harsh it is. We hear shouts of excitement and there on the shoreline is a huge heard of elephants. The shoreline on the Zimbabwe side is about one and a half kilometres from us. To see them close up you need the binoculars. The Zambian shoreline is beyond the horizon of water. This gives you an idea of how wide this Lake really is. We move back into the shade of the entertainment area and relax in the many lounge chairs protected from the sun now by the huge awning. This must be one of the most relaxing holidays I had ever been on. Perfect for the afternoon siesta. We are cruising to our first port of call. The ports of call are remote stops on the cruise on either little islands or on the mainland in the nature reserve. There are no towns or villages but just wild animals that greet you i.e. no civilisation, don’t take your cell phone.

Late afternoon, plus 4 hours into the cruise we hear the engines slow and realising we have reached our destination. The captain gradually negotiates the houseboat almost onto the shoreline and the crew tie the boat up with long mooring ropes. We are now actually parked on the shore. The captain turns the engines off and there is silence like you have never experienced. You then start hearing nature. The hippos bark and we all look, sure enough there’s a family of hippos. I counted six. The two tender boats are loaded up with refreshments, the fishing equipment and snacks. We choose a boat and off we go. This is the highlight of the trip. Small bays along the shoreline abound but the captains of the tender boats, one is the captain of the houseboat and the other is the chief housekeeper, know these areas like the back of their hands, steer us to the best fishing spots.

As you can imagine the fishing is good (mainly bream) because you are in the wilds where not many humans venture. We keep the larger catch for supper and snacks. I was a bit sceptical about eating bream, I prefer saltwater fish and had never eaten fresh water bream before. The sun is now beginning to set on the horizon over the water. We are told that we must head back. There is nothing like a late afternoon cruise on the water with a relaxing gin and tonic and the beautiful African sunset. On the houseboat we head for the showers. Back up on the top deck we are greeted with a pre-meal drink and with darkness looming we chat about the events of the day. All of a sudden it is dark and the crew are summoning us for supper. Man they can cook. By eight p.m. everyone was bushed and retired to bed. Most of us slept on the deck upstairs on mattresses in the open. The older folk slept in the cabins downstairs.

Approximately four thirty a.m. you are woken by movement downstairs and a rich aroma of coffee being made. You have twenty minutes to wash, apply generous amounts of sunscreen lotion and have coffee and rusks before another adventurous fishing venture on the tender boats. The sun is rising now above the mountains, you can feel the heat and you realise that the rest of the day is going to be a scorcher. Between ten and eleven am we are arrive back with our catches and eager for some food. We are greeted with a magnificent brunch. While we are enjoying our brunch the captain starts up the engines and the rest of the crew are untie the moorings of the houseboat. He manoeuvres out of the bay and heads out back into the vast expanse of Lake Kariba. We are on our way to our next port of call. We finish brunch and some of us take a quick dip in the pool and relax with the gentle motion of the houseboat cruising along the lake. The rest of the day’s cruise is spread between siestas, spot the wild animals on the shoreline and playing card and board games.

We arrive at the next port of call with totally different scenery. A larger but we are greeted with a family of elephants. Now elephants are my favourite animals. Up close and in the wilds like this is one of the highlights of my holiday. The hippos are there too along with the wide variety of buck. The routine is the same as the previous day with the tender boats and fishing. This is by no means boring as there is always something to look at, wide varieties of birds with elephants appearing out of the bush, buck all over the place and the odd hippo close by in the water. Crocodiles are also plentiful but it is the hippos you need to keep an eye on, as they will charge your boat if you get too close to them. If they do then you will definitely end up being a meal for the crocodiles. After another very successful afternoons fishing we have another sundowner cruise back to the houseboat.

The rest of the trip is pretty much the same as the first day but as I have said it is always entertaining and never boring. So much wild life, fresh air and the days fly by. Evening star gazing is incredible, with falling stars and satellites moving around the sky. With so many hundreds of miles between you and the nearest city you can imagine the amount of stars you can see. We did not see the lions but heard them roar one or two evenings. The one-day after the roaring we could see the vultures hovering. The locals and the crew said they were waiting for the lions to finish their “kill” so they could move in after them. They must have been about five hundred meters from us.

Sadly, the time had come to return back to Kariba town. Some said they have had their holiday and now need to get back to their daily lives. I could have stayed on for longer. I would normally recommend this amazing houseboat vacation on Lake Kariba to anyone, however considering the state of the country of Zimbabwe at the present time is a no-no unfortunately. Who knows in a little while things might change for the better and this would become a very popular destination indeed?

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