Lake Kariba was created by the construction of a huge dam, started in November 1956 and completed in June 1959. It was the largest dam of its time – 579m wide at its crest, 128m high, 13–26m thick – and designed to provide copious hydro-electric power for both Zimbabwe and Zambia. It was a huge undertaking that turned some 280km of the river into around 5,200km2 of lake. It has six 100,000kW generators on the Zimbabwean side, and five on the Zambian side – although the electricity generated here is promptly sold to Zimbabwe. The total construction cost was £78 million.
In human terms, construction of the dam immediately displaced thousands of BaTonga villagers, on both sides of the border, and took the lives of 86 workers in the process – around 18 of whom are entombed within the dam's million cubic metres of cement. It has opened up new industries relying on the lake, just as it closed off many possibilities for exploiting the existing rich game areas in that section of the Zambezi Valley.
It inevitably drowned much wildlife, despite the efforts of Operation Noah to save and relocate some of the animals as the floodwaters rose. However, the lake is now home to rich fish and aquatic life, and several game reserves (and lodges) are thriving on its southern shores.
For the visitor, Zambia's side of the lake is less well developed than Zimbabwe's and lacks a national park, although with the demise of most of Zimbabwe's tourism, this is changing rapidly. Only on its islands, Chete and Chikanka, will you find much game. However, the fishing is very good and the small resorts of Siavonga and Sinazongwe make pleasant places to relax, or to base yourself for outings on to the lake.
There is a commercial ferry in operation between Kariba and Milbibezi, both on the Zimbabwe side; otherwise the only way to go on the lake is to hire your own boat, or to visit one of the islands.
Health and safety around the lakeBilharzia
Bilharzia is found in Lake Kariba, but only in certain areas. Unfortunately, it isn't possible to pinpoint its whereabouts exactly; but shallow, weedy areas that suit the host snail are likely to harbour the parasites, and you're unlikely to contract bilharzia whilst in deep water in the middle of the lake.
Local people who engage in watersports consider it as an occupational hazard, and are regularly treated to expel the parasites from their bodies (those who can afford the treatment, that is).Animal dangers
The lake contains good populations of crocodiles, and also a few hippos. Both conspire to make bathing and swimming near the shore unsafe. However, it is generally considered safe to take quick dips in the middle of the lake – often tempting, given Lake Kariba's high temperatures and humidity. The crocodiles have apparently not yet learned how to catch water-skiers.