Lake Kariba (Zimbabwe) Vacation paradise doomed or on hold?

To be honest, this vacation paradise has been doomed and unused for the past five plus years. 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, with nothing around you but a vast expanse of water, mountains, and the knowledge that wild animals actually do exist on the coast? For me, Lake Kariba is the home of the “houseboat”. Since I was a teenager I had heard of these houseboats. A floating vacation on a vast expanse of water. What I didn’t know was the size of these floating hotels and how big Lake Kariba really is. In the vast majority of our ports of call, all you can see on the horizon is water.

Landing at Harare airport is like arriving at any third world airport. Not much different today than the first world, except that it’s much smaller. The trip, by convoy to Kariba, was quite exciting due to knowing the turmoil in the country and not knowing what to expect, although we had some locals with us and they assured us it would be fine. What a change, although having been in Zimbabwe seven years before, the degradation had taken its toll. Most of the gas stations are closed, fenced and blocked waiting for fuel. Driving through the countryside, desolate farms, barns with only shells, the wood and roof collected to create makeshift houses (huts). Once a prosperous agricultural country now reduced to a sinkhole producing nation. The trip to Kariba takes approximately 5 hours. Three more hours outside of Harare you enter the national park. Wow, there are no fences and the game is plentiful.

Going off the main road otherwise you’ll end up in Zambia is truly amazing. Don’t drive too fast as now you are really in nature. We saw abundant elephants, giraffes and lots of bucks. Also, the scenery is picturesque, winding through hills and mountain passes, flat landscapes with the famous African savannah and even knowing that you will enjoy the next ten days on a fully equipped houseboat cruise – paradise. Driving through the last mountain pass and seeing the vast expanse of Lake Kariba is magnificent. I couldn’t believe it was so big, also around the Kariba village and towards the wall there are mountains facing the water. The landscape is impressive.

I expected the houseboat to be small, old, and dilapidated. What a surprise when I saw him and the crew of four, waiting with welcome drinks. It’s hot, very hot. The houseboat has one floor at water level and one above. On the ground floor are the four cabins, the kitchen (galley) and storage rooms. Upstairs a large entertaining area comes with the dining area all under an open sided awning, the bridge where the captain drives the boat and then out front in the open air is this plunge pool. Two dinghies are towed behind this huge house on the water powered by a huge diesel engine.

Once all luggage, food and drinks were loaded, the captain took us out of the mini port. He had often heard of Lake Kariba and the vast expanse of water, now sitting in the pool at the front of the houseboat, cooling off with an ice cold beer, he couldn’t believe the size of the lake. We left the port in the open sea and it was huge. The African landscape on the Zimbabwean side is perfect with the mountains sloping down sharply towards the lake around the town of Kariba and towards the wall. South of the city of Kariba, the mountains are further away from the lake and gradually descend towards the African savannah which eventually reaches the coast. An hour later and still at the pool relaxing with ice cold beers not far away, we are advised to put on some sun protection against the harsh African sun and how harsh it is. We hear screams of excitement and there on the coast there are a large number of elephants. The coast on the Zimbabwean side is about a kilometer and a half from us. To see them up close you need binoculars. The Zambian coast is beyond the horizon of the water. This gives you an idea of ​​how wide this lake really is. We return to the shade of the entertainment area and relax on the many loungers protected from the sun now by the huge awning. This has to be one of the most relaxing vacations I’ve ever been on. Perfect for the afternoon siesta. We are sailing towards our first port of call. Ports of call are remote stops on the cruise, either on small islands or on the mainland in the nature reserve. No towns or villages, just wild animals greeting you, meaning no civilization, don’t take your cell phone.

Late in the afternoon, plus 4 hours after the cruise, we hear the slow engines and realize we have reached our destination. The captain gradually negotiates the houseboat almost to shore and the crew moors the boat with long mooring ropes. Now we are parked on the shore. The captain cuts the engines and there is a silence like you have never experienced before. Then you start listening to nature. The hippos bark and we all look, indeed there is a family of hippos. I counted six. The two tenders are loaded with refreshments, fishing equipment, and snacks. We choose a boat and off we go. This is the highlight of the trip. Little bays abound along the coast, but the dinghy captains, one being the houseboat captain and the other being the head housekeeper, know these areas like the back of their hand, guiding us to the best fishing spots.

As you can imagine, the fishing is good (mainly gold) because you are in the wild where not many humans venture. We keep the biggest catch for dinner and snacks. I was a bit skeptical about eating bream, I prefer saltwater fish and have never eaten freshwater bream before. The sun is now beginning to set on the horizon over the water. We are told that we must return. There’s nothing like a late afternoon water cruise with a relaxing gin and tonic and the beautiful African sunset. On the houseboat we headed for the showers. Back on the upper deck, we are greeted with a pre-meal drink and with the gathering darkness, we chat about the day’s events. Suddenly it’s dark and the crew calls us in for dinner. Man, they can cook. At eight in the evening everyone was tired and went to bed. Most of us sleep on the terrace above on mattresses in the open air. The older ones slept in the cabins below.

At about four-thirty in the morning, he is awakened by movement downstairs and a rich aroma of coffee being brewed. You have twenty minutes to wash up, apply generous amounts of sunscreen, and have coffee and biscuits before another fishing adventure in the dinghy. The sun is coming up over the mountains now, you can feel the heat and you know the rest of the day is going to be scorching hot. Between ten and eleven in the morning we return with our catches and wanting to eat something. They welcome us with a magnificent brunch. As we enjoy our brunch, the captain is starting the engines and the rest of the crew is untying the houseboat’s mooring lines. Maneuver your way out of the bay and back into the vast expanse of Lake Kariba. We are on our way to our next port of call. We finish brunch and a few of us take a quick dip in the pool and relax to the gentle motion of the houseboat sailing across the lake. The rest of the day of the cruise is divided between naps, watching the wild animals on the coast and playing cards and board games.

We arrive at the next port of call with a totally different landscape. A larger size but we are received by a family of elephants. Now elephants are my favorite animals. Up close and in nature like this is one of the highlights of my vacation. Hippos are also there along with the wide variety of deer. The routine is the same as the day before with the auxiliary boats and the fishing. This is by no means boring as there is always something to see, a wide variety of birds with elephants appearing from the jungle, bucking all around and the occasional hippo nearby in the water. Crocodiles are also plentiful, but it’s the hippos you need to watch out for, as they will charge your boat if you get too close to them. If they do, you will definitely end up being food for the crocodiles. After another very successful afternoon of fishing, we have another sunset cruise back to the houseboat.

The rest of the trip is more or less the same as the first day but as I have already said it is always entertaining and never boring. So much wildlife, clean air and the days fly by. Stargazing at dusk is amazing, with shooting stars and satellites moving across the sky. With so many hundreds of miles between you and the nearest city, you can imagine how many stars you can see. We didn’t see the lions, but we did hear them roar a night or two. The day after the roar we could see the vultures hovering. The locals and crew said they were waiting for the lions to finish the “kill” so they could move after them. They must have been about five hundred meters from us.

Unfortunately, the time had come to return to the city of Kariba. Some said they have had their vacation and now need to get back to their daily lives. I could have stayed longer. I would normally recommend this amazing Lake Kariba houseboat holiday to anyone, however considering the state of the country of Zimbabwe at present, it is unfortunately not possible. Who knows before long things could change for the better and this would become a very popular destination?

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