The Story Behind Lake Kariba, A Southern African Marvel

Sunset, Lake Kariba, Zimbabwe
Sunset, Lake Kariba

Lake Kariba is one of southern Africa’s most extraordinary destinations. Forming roughly a third of the border between Zambia to the north and Zimbabwe to the south, its waters swell the narrow gorges of the Zambezi – one of Africa’s greatest rivers. Located halfway between the Zambezi’s mouth on the Indian Ocean, and UNESCO World Heritage Site Victoria Falls, it creates a landscape of rolling hills and serrated summits as beautiful as any on the continent.

Visitors to its calming shores are often mesmerized by the tranquility of the area, falling asleep to the sound of lapping waves and waking to the rustle of leaves as elephants feed from its trees. For Lake Kariba has also developed a reputation as one of Africa’s most unusual safari destinations, with the chance to spot iconic species from both land and water. Add to this the opportunity to fish for tigerfish and bream, or soak up the glorious sunsets from its houseboats, and you’ve got a destination worthy of a multitude of adjectives.

But what you might not realize is that Lake Kariba is a man-made wonder, or that its creation led to one of the most exciting animal rescue operations since Noah built his Ark.

The creation of Lake Kariba

Lake Kariba was created in the late 1950s and early 1960s by the construction of Kariba Dam across the Zambezi. The primary aim was to provide a source of hydroelectric power for industry on both sides of the Zambia-Zimbabwe border (then an internal border of the British Empire between Northern and Southern Rhodesia). The introduction of sardine-like kapenta fish from Lake Tanganika in Tanzania also created a fishing industry, although overfishing since has resulted in a significant fall in catches in more recent years.

At the time of Kariba Dam’s construction, Lake Kariba became the largest artificial lake in the world at 170 miles long and up to 25 miles wide. By volume, it remains the world’s largest artificial reservoir, at 44 cubic miles, or four times the size of China’s epic Three Gorges Dam reservoir.

Kariba Dam rises to a height of 420 feet, the equivalent of a 39-story building. Its arching form has a total length of almost 2,000 feet or a third of a mile. It stems 90% of the flow of the Zambezi, thanks to more than 35 million cubic feet of concrete.

The dam cost a total of $480m, and very sadly, the lives of 86 construction workers. It took an astounding four years for Lake Kariba to fill to its current level, following its official opening by the UK’s Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother in May 1960.

Lake Kariba Damn, Zambia
Lake Kariba Damn, Zambia

Lake Kariba’s impact on local communities

The completion of Kariba Dam saw the waters of the newly-created Lake Kariba rise up to 20 feet every 24 hours. The rising waters resulted in the displacement and forced resettlement of an estimated 57,000 Batonga people. An ethnic group inhabiting both sides of the River Zambezi’s Gwembe Valley, they call themselves the Basilwizi, or ‘the river people.’

Today, the Basilwizi are most likely to be encountered in Kariba town, Binga Village, and Chirundu town. The majority make a living as subsistence farmers, while others create decorative basketwork for sale in local markets. In 2002, they created the Basilwizi Trust, to boost development of their new homelands.

Further Elaboration on previous paragraph…

Today, the Basilwizi are most likely to be encountered in Kariba town, a major settlement close to the dam wall on the lake’s eastern end in Zimbabwe. At the other end of the lake, Zimbabwe’s Binga Village is another place to meet with the Basilwizi. In Zambia, head to Chirundu town, 50 miles east of the dam. The majority of Basilwizi make a living as subsistence farmers, while others create decorative basketwork…

Always revering the river, the Basilwizi believed that construction of Kariba Dam would anger the river god Nyaminyami. Many now consider Nyaminyami to live beneath a rock, known locally as Kariwa, close to the dam wall. Kariwa is the Shona word for ‘little trap,’ which some suggest is the origins of the name Kariba. Either way, the Basilwizi continue to warn against canoeing close to Kariwa rock, in case it angers Nyaminyami and he destroys the dam.

Elephant Rescue, Operation Noah
Elephant Rescue, Operation Noah (Photo Credit: Tim Abbott)

Operation Noah

It wasn’t only human populations which were permanently displaced by the creation of Lake Kariba. The region’s wildlife also found itself at risk. As the waters rose, many species instinctively sought the perceived safety of higher ground. They did so on more than 100 newly-formed but temporary islands which would soon be inundated forever.

This ultimately led to a major project to relocate larger species before they drowned. It was described by the media of the time as a ‘silent SOS’ and ‘animal Dunkirk,’ a reference to the evacuation of British troops from the French town during the Second World War. Its more formal name was Operation Noah.

Operation Noah was led by a South African-born senior game warden called Rupert Bellamy Fothergill. Living in basic bush camps for months on end, and with access to just seven small boats, Fothergill, two other wardens, and five trackers were responsible for rescuing as many animals as possible to the Zimbabwean side of the lake.

In many ways, the rescue of the region’s animals was relatively amateur. It often became the case that smaller animals, such as rabbit-sized rock hyrax, were simply held above the waterline by a team member while they awaited pick up by one of their boats.

Cape Buffalo, Lake Kariba, Zimbabwe
Cape Buffalo, Lake Kariba

Medium-sized animals such as antelope were generally caught by stringing camouflaged nets across the islands, before tying their legs with nylon stockings to prevent them injuring themselves. Ropes were found to be too rough. Other animals, including buffalo calves, were wrestled to the ground by hand. These animals would then be carried to the gunwales of the boats and shipped to dry land in Matusadona National Park to the immediate south of the lake.

Larger species such as lions, leopards and elephant were generally chased into the rising waters and herded towards the shore if they got disorientated, with ropes sometimes used to support them. Venomous snakes included deadly black mambas were caught using adapted fishing rods and pillowcases, while the pioneering use of tranquilizer darts helped with the rescue of 43 rhino and many adult buffalo. These animals were then loaded onto rafts made from 44-gallon oil drums.

An impressive 1,700 animals were rescued in the first year alone. During the five years it ran, Operation Noah rescued over 6,000 individual animals, including elephants, white and black rhinos (now sadly reduced in number due to poaching), lions, leopards, zebra, antelope, snakes, larger lizards and even some birds.

A similar operation would eventually begin on the Zambian side of the lake too. It was led by a man named Ted Edelman, and saved an additional 1,000 animals.

Remembering Operation Noah

Today, Kariba’s Fothergill Island bears the name of the man responsible for Operation Noah. It’s one of several permanent islands on Lake Kariba, alongside Chete Island, and provides a home for a variety of species.

Thanks to Fothergill’s efforts, it’s still possible to see species as diverse as Nile crocodiles, hippos, elephant, lion, leopard, cheetah, Cape buffalo, antelope, cormorants, and fish eagles. A further memorial to Operation Noah stands at Kariba Heights, a viewpoint on the outskirts of Kariba town.

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