Carrie Hampton had always dreamed of taking a houseboat down the length of Lake Kariba and when the invite came with only a few days notice and a travel book to finish, she hesitated for only a split second before packing her bags and leaving the deadlines behind. She says this was the right decision, but she's now so hooked on Kariba's magic that she wants return.
By Carrie Hampton
Lake Kariba must be one of the most peaceful places to truly chill out, particularly on a houseboat heading from one end of this inland sea to the other. There is nothing much to do but to relax, and that's what this bunch of journalists did armed with ice-cold beers, the occasional fishing rod and a variety of cameras.
We were on Brett McDonald's 8-bedded Lady Jacqueline. A classy dame with a wide beam, enabling much sprawling around on deck and two at a time in the little cuddle puddle (a large bath-tub sunk into the deck). Brett had invited us aboard to fill his empty leg from Kariba to Binga, where he had to collect his next clients.
The Lady Jacqueline cruised sedately, at a pace that allowed us to appreciate the magnitude of this enormous lake that is 285kms long and in places 40kms wide. We moored up at a different spot on the lakeshore each night and on queue, nature's theatre put on its best-selling long running show; Deep Purple followed by the Electric Light Orchestra.
Or in other words, a sunset of many colours with a short interval before cataclysmic explosions of thunder and great shards of lightening.
Nyaminyami - Lake Kariba River God
Days drifted into timelessness and not once did I feel the need to check the time - it was irrelevant. There was a kind of magic to Lake Kariba that had everybody mesmerised. Perhaps Nyaminyami, the Zambezi River God was feeling at peace. Nyaminyami is held responsible for the 1958 once-in-a-thousand-year flood during the damming of the Zambezi to create the massive Kariba Dam.
People who claim to have seen the River God, say it looks rather like the Loch Ness Monster, with a snake body and fish head. Nyaminyami totems matching this description are sold to afford protection when venturing near the Zambezi. I had mine tucked into my camera case.
As we flew in to Lusaka and jumped into a waiting vehicle and headed towards the Zimbabwe border, I wondered how Brett would manage to find enough fuel for the houseboat and 4x4 transfers at either end of our boat trip. It also occurred to me that food was short in rural Zimbabwe and we might have to eat fish for the next 5 or 6 days; assuming we caught some.
But both these concerns were met with the distinctive grin that became familiar to us, as Brett calmly stated, "don't worry, I have a plan." This attitude of owning the problem and fixing it just doesn't exist in the UK where I come from, but here in Southern Africa I am comforted by these words. Naturally, Brett's plan worked and he even had fuel enough for us to use the air-conditioning in the two en-suite master bedrooms.
Fish for Supper
Food was also abundant and Albert the Chef conjured up all sorts of salads and vegetables to accompany meat and fish starters and main courses. Vegetarians were catered for, but even they couldn't resist a nibble of freshly caught pan-fried 'bar fish'. 'Bar fish' are the small bream inexpertly caught by guests such as myself, which aren't big enough for a dinner plate and have to end up as delectable little bar snacks.
Duster Captained the ship, while the broadly grinning Steven pulled on ropes, served at table and with a smile on his face, did any other job attributed to a deck hand or general dogs body. As the days passed lazily by, we came to love our crew and put our complete trust and safety in their hands.
Every time I forgot that I was in crocodile territory, Duster politely suggested that I did not paddle at that spot on the bank. He would always be there to steady us as we stepped onto the tender boat for our late afternoon fishing excursion, and would wave us off and be there on our return. Meanwhile, Steven made the beds and filled the fridges with drinks and laid the tables for yet another feast.
Spurwing Island and Matusadona National Park
It was fun to hook the odd fish, but I was happy to sit in bikini with rod in one hand and a G&T in the other and just enjoy the view. This consisted of gentle lakeshore whose shallows were dotted with the bleached skeletons of dead trees that drowned as the dam filled. This scene is as distinctive to Lake Kariba as the Eiffel Tower is to Paris.
Before we had reached the point in our trip where we rarely encountered another boat, we pulled into Spurwing Island to take a peek at the lodge. It was full of families from Harare weekending at the lake (you can trust the locals to know the best spots). The cottages are tucked into shaded glades with grassed surrounds looking towards the water.
However, with a territorial male crocodile patrolling each 100-metre stretch of shoreline, and plenty of breeding females, this is no bathing in this lake. Seeking respite from the heat must be done in the lodge pool, which is where I was to be found, with yes you guessed it, another G&T.
The water level between Spurwing Island and Matusadona National Park was low enough for us to cross the causeway between the two. We made it without getting stuck in the silt and drove in search of the park's big game; lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant, rhino and antelopes. This must be elephant heaven because the grass grows long and lush, there are sufficient trees to browse and push over, and plentiful fresh water.
We soon bumped into a large breeding herd of elephants whose skin glowed orange from the red mud in which they bathed. Baby elephants and shallow water proved an entertaining combination and we watched their hilarious antics with wobbly trunks and fat little bodies, until the sunset turned them into silhouettes.
Elephants in Hwange National Park
We arrived at our disembarking point at Binga after a number of days; how many I can't exactly say due to the catatonic state in which I found myself. But this wasn't the end of the trip. We were now on our way to Victoria Falls via Hwange National Park with an overnight stay at Sikumi Tree Lodge.
This thatched lodge with tree-level chalets-on-stilts had a lonely charm, as others in the area who are all lacking in custom. Here we had the chance of more game viewing, this time in search of the prized Presidential Herd of elephants. It was however, something entirely different that became the highlight of this game drive, as we stopped on the edge of the park at Mabale Village. Here we met Mr and Mrs Dingane, she in her 60s and he well past 70 years old, but still working their small patch of land to produce sweet potatoes, ochre, tomatoes and pumpkin.
A lion had killed some of their goats earlier that week and they feared it would return, but the sadness in their eyes was for their daughter who had died two weeks previously. They received us gracefully and showed us their garden, which produced barely enough for them to eat yet they offered us their last pumpkin as we left.
Vertigo in Victoria Falls
Our final stop on this great Zimbabwe adventure was Victoria Falls, which is so much more than just a mile-wide waterfall. Vic Falls is the place for adventure extremes, where a Nyaminyami comes in handy for facing a ferocious-looking Zambezi.
Having been thoroughly dunked in the white water of these rapids on a previous occasion, I opted out of the Shearwater river rafting and jet boating, and just couldn't bring myself to leap off the bridge with a giant elastic band tied to my ankles. I did agree to harness myself up and do the Victoria Falls Bridge walk, which got the knees wobbling with a spot of vertigo as I explored the underside of the hundred-year old bridge.
The sheer energy of Victoria Falls and adrenaline rushes from our chosen pursuits had re-awakened our group sufficiently to be ready to return to South Africa. We were going home with joy in our hearts from every Zimbabwean we had met. The message I promised to bring back to you from Duster and Albert and Mr and Mrs Dingane, is that Zimbabwe is waiting for you to return on your holidays and I can assure you that Kariba's magic has lost none of its potency.