The rock that gave Lake Kariba its name is now buried fathoms deep, but the legendary Zambezi river god Nyaminyami may still watch over the world’s largest manmade lake and the wildlife of the Matusadona National Park.
The construction of the hydro-electric dam across the mighty Zambezi flooded the Kariba Gorge and led to the creation of Lake Kariba in 1958. The kilometres of dead trees drowned when the lake was established still lend an eerie beauty to the lakeshore. The 250km-long lake has since become a family-friendly holiday playground, with watersports, houseboat cruising, excellent fishing and safaris.
When the lake started filling, ‘Operation Noah’ was launched to save the wildlife in the Kariba Gorge. Most of these animals, including the Big Five, found a home in the game reserve that became Matusadona National Park in 1975. The lake and park are part of the Middle Zambezi Biosphere Reserve.
The Tonga people were also displaced by the lake waters. This caused great hardship but the warm and witty Tonga still live and work in the area and treasure their cultural heritage.
Sunsets over Lake Kariba are achingly beautiful, especially with the mountain backdrop of the eponymous Matuzviadonha Hills on the park’s northern plateau. To the park’s south, the escarpment drops to the scrub and woodland plains of the Zambezi Valley. Matusadona is buffalo and elephant country – 1 000-strong buffalo herds can be seen grazing the indigenous torpedo grass along the Kariba shoreline, together with large herds of elephant. The hardy grass survives flooding in the wet season and the herbivores drawn to it in the dry season, which, when the water recedes, attract crocodiles in their turn. This time, between April and October, affords the best game viewing.
Away from the shores, the endemic and critically endangered black rhino may be spotted along the foot of the plateau. Big Cat enthusiasts should look out for lion, leopard and cheetah. African wild dog and hyena also roam the park.
Water safaris are an excellent way to enjoy the area’s natural beauty and view wildlife both aquatic and land-based along the islands, bays and creeks of the shores. Look carefully for the shy clawless otter. The plentiful crocodiles and hippos are a highlight — no swimming here! —while the ferocious endemic tiger fish is the big prize for anglers. There are more than 150 fish species in Kariba, from tiny kapenta to tasty bream and tilapia to the massive vundu. The lake is also a wonderful vantage point for birding; the fish eagles nesting in the ‘drowned forest’ compete for attention with herons and storks, darters, ducks and cormorants, plovers and pratincoles, kingfishers and weaver birds. The bush inland shelters many more species, and gorgeous bee-eaters nest in sandstone cliffs along the park rivers.
Matusadona National Park