History Of Lake Kariba

The story of the creation of the lake and the building of Kariba Dam is an exciting account of modern engineering. But it is also the tale of the tragic but necessary removal of the Ba Tonga people, who held that the river god Nyaminyami would destroy the dam and allow the Zambezi to run free again. Kariba takes its name after a rock which used to feature quite prominently in the river gorge – but is now buried underwater. Many believed it to be the home of the river god Nyaminyami, who caused anyone who ventured near it to be drawn into the deep water, never to be seen again…
There is suggested evidence that the Kingdom’s of Sheba, Solomon and Hiram were enriched by the gold and ivory of Ophir which is supposedly a part of the present day Zimbabwe. The Zambezi was once a gateway to the ancient treasure trove of central Africa. There are plenty of cave paintings and such that are evidence of early man’s occupation has been found along most of the river but much of its history has been shrouded in mystery.


50 years ago, the emerging requirements of a young nation drove people to control the flow of one Africa’s great rivers “The Zambezi”. So the Electricity Supply Commission instigated an investigation for possible hydroelectric schemes to be situated at Kariba and in 1941 funds were allocated. As a result of this survey, a river gauging station was set up at Chirundu as well as at a campsite 25 kilometers downstream from the present dam wall.
The dam was an initiative of the Federation existing at the time between British ruled Northern and Southern Rhodesia (now Zambia and Zimbabwe) and Nyasaland (Malawi). To dam the great Zambezi floodplain was in many ways a hopeful leap into the future. Vast areas of forest and scrub would be inundated. Literally thousands of wild animals would lose their habitats and, more importantly, the local villages would have to be relocated. Analysis of the economic advantages convinced the authorities that the ultimate benefit to the people would outweigh the loss of wildlife and disturbance to people’s lives.
In 1958, at the narrow neck of a remarkable gorge, a rising wall of concrete stemmed the river’s flow and so created what at the time was one of the largest man-made lakes in history. The Kariba Hydroelectric dam wall had created a vast expanse of water which is now known as Lake Kariba. It provides considerable electric power to both Zambia and Zimbabwe and supports a thriving commercial fishing industry. More than a million cubic metres of concrete were employed to build the 24-metre thick and 128-metre high wall, which was designed to sustain the pressure of nearly ten million litres of water passing through its spillway every second. It is located at the northernmost shore of Lake Kariba.


The building of the Kariba Dam was always surrounded by controversy, both environmentally and socially, it is still an impressive monument to man’s engineering genius. There is a big tourist potential that the lake offers, there are many positive implications for the struggling economy and unemployment problems in the area. The Tonga People, whose traditional lands lie buried beneath the lake, would probably benefit most from tourist development.
Captured inside a mountainous basin and fringed by teak forest, nature reserves and an eery landscape of submerged trees the lake is any photographer’s dream. Numerous islands and waterways cause the wildlife to swim about quite frequently, which makes game viewing by boat very popular.
Lake Kariba is located on the Zambezi River, about halfway between the river’s source and mouth, about 1,300 km upstream from the Indian Ocean. The lake lies along the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe. The Lake was filled between 1958 and 1963 following the completion of the Kariba Dam at its northeastern end, flooding a former gorge on the Zambezi River and displacing large numbers of the local Tonga people. Siavonga and Sinazongwe in Zambia have grown up to house people displaced by the rising waters.
In the early 60’s Rupert Fothergill and his team, bravely undertook the biggest animal rescue ever called Operation Noah, the worlds attention was on the lake for the first time. An epic drama which was also partly filmed, unfolded, as wildlife was saved from the rising waters of the new Lake. Over 5,000 animals were rescued, including 35 different mammal species and 44 black rhino. Frightened creatures ranging from elephant to snakes were captured for release into areas that now form Matusadona National Park and Chete Safari Area. The surrounds of Lake Kariba became a fascinating turmoil of ecological change – parts of which now teem with an abundance of flora and fauna in a striking and diverse terrain.
The Kariba Dam wall was designed by the French engineer and inventor Andre Coyne. A specialist in “arch dams”, he personally designed over 55 dams, Kariba being one of them. Rumor around Zambia has it that a few of the dams he built in Italy collapsed leading him to commit suicide. This fact has not been corroborated.
Lake Kariba is over 220 kilometers (140 mi) long and up to 40 kilometers (20 mi) in width. It covers an area of 5,580 square kilometers (2,150 sq mi) and its storage capacity is an immense 185 cubic kilometers (44.4 cu mi). The mean depth of the lake is 29 meters (95 ft); the maximum depth is 97 meters (320 ft). The enormous mass of water (approximately 180,000,000,000,000 kilograms, or 180 petagrams (one petagram is one billion metric tons, 180 billion metric tons) is believed to have caused induced seismicity in the seismically active region, including over 20 earthquakes of greater than 5 magnitudes on the Richter scale.


Coordinates: 17° S 28° E
Lake type: Hydroelectric reservoir
Catchment area: 663,000 km2
Basin countries: Zimbabwe Zambia
Max-length: 220 km
Max-width: 40 km
Surface area: 5,400 km2
Average depth: 31 m

Visit the Kariba Dam wall:

No passport needed though you will need to leave an ID at the Zambian border post desk.

Siavonga market tour:

Enjoy a morning walk to Siavonga market and the nearby produce market and shops. Our Zambian guide will escort you and explain this area’s fishing history, the use of traditional ingredients, cooking methods and the role food plays in daily rituals.

Kapenta Rig:

Experience the trade of fish farming on the largest man-made lake and reservoir in the world by taking a kapenta rig tour at Lake Kariba Inns.

Contact us to enquire about booking!