In 1955 after a decade of indecision, the former colonial government of modern-day Zambia and Zimbabwe pushed through its controversial p|an to build a much needed hydroelectric dam at Kariba. Withih a year work had begun on one of the greatest engineering feats in the history of Africa. For more than three years the formerly tranquil gorge reverberated with the unceasing roar of compressors and the persistent rumble of mixers and crushers. Concrete was churned non-stop and moulded into a giant arching wall as powerful mechanised monsters thrust their way through the virgin bush. Muffled sounds of explosions echoed through the air as blasts penetrated the core of the gorge. On 16th May 1960 calm returned to the valley and the Kariba Dam was officially opened by HM Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother.
The rising wall of concrete at the neck of Kariba gorge now blocked the Zambezi’s path, unveiling an entirely new landscape. Held inside this mountainous basin fringed by teak forests and nature reserves emerged one of the largest man-made lakes in history. Half a century later Kariba’s eerie landscape and seductive charm casts an ethereal spell over scorched African fjords and placid backwaters. Skeletal branches scorched by wind and sun pierce the sky from half-drowned trees some topped with great untidy nests of herons and fish eagles – whilst verdant islands and estuaries spill into wetlands allowing hippo, elephant and buffalo across this serene Eden for grazing. But this serenity belies a turbulent and violent past. Vast areas of the Zambezi floodplain were submerged, destroying hundreds of local villages on ancestral lands and causing severe loss of habitat to countless wild animals. Threatened by the rising flood waters, 30,000 displaced Tonga pe0p|e were resettled in the Zambian towns of Sinazongwe and Siavonga and the greatest animal rescue operation since the biblical story of Noah’s Ark was launched. Operation Noah saved over 7,000 animals ranging from snakes t0 elephants, all heroically captured and re|eased into protected wildlife areas. Joe Brooks, now 81, moved to Zambia in 1954. Two years later he was resettling the Tonga people, rescuing stranded animals in Operation Noah and witnessing the preparation of the new lake bed for fishing. “It was an epic task clearing over 350 square miles of dense bush so our nets wouldn’t be snared on a ragged coastline of dead trees”, recalls Brooks. Huge trees linked in pairs by stretches of battleship anchor chain attached to eight feet high steel balls slithered through the dust a few feet from the ground scything a swathe through the virgin bush as they jerked into life. ”I remember tall trees trembling violently, lurching forward and slowly swaying and crashing in a cloud of dust as hundreds of chattering birds exploded into the skies”, says Brooks’. “And bulldozers trundled behind like scavengers pushing the debris forward into neat funeral pyres over five miles long and as it burned a thick pall of smoke hung in the air obliterating the sunlight for days”. With ashes buried, towering grass erupted from the fertile lake bed after the first rains and birds flocked from far and wide for an incredible fishing bonanza. “It was an unforgettable sight”, says Brooks, “even attracting exotic flamingos”. A less welcome invasion was the Nile cabbage, salvenia and water hyacinths that soon choked the new lake. “Weeds rippled in waves like a giant mattress and my kids used to jump in and bounce around”, laughs Joe. The plague was finally eradicated by raising and lowering the lake level and then painstakingly clearing the decaying vegetation.
Today, Kariba’s shoreline and islands are dotted with unpretentious resorts offering water sports, tiger-Fishing, sundowner cruises and game viewing, but its commercial fishing industry has transformed the valley’s economy. Thanks to kapenta, a tiny protein-rich, sardine-like Fish, towns like Sinazongwe and Siavonga are thriving. “Approximately 25,000 tonnes of the high protein kapenta are caught annually,” explains Bernard Mulenga, 47, who has fished on Lake Kariba for over 25 years and is general manager of eight Fishing rigs at Sinazongwe. “Kariba’s fishing industry has changed the lives of hundreds of Zambians and Zimbabweans who are no longer forced into Lusaka, Harare or the Copperbelt for work”. The kapenta in the lake are descended from stock that came from Lake Tanganyika over 40 years ago and are attracted by lights at night. On a moonless night the eerie lake becomes a glittering jewel as flickering lights from the distant kapenta Fishing rigs twinkle as they chug slowly across the darkened waters, scooping out huge shoals of silvery fish that wriggle and glisten in the dripping dip-nets. llMost of the haul is salted and sun-dried,” explains Mulenga, giving the affordable kapenta a lengthy shelf-life and making them easy to transport anywhere in southern Africa without refrigeration.