A Zimbabwean houseboat adventure on Lake Kariba

Posted on 14 March 2022 By Chloe Cowley

Known for its vibrant sunsets, hot temperatures and exciting game viewing, Lake Kariba is a popular spot for locals and foreigners alike. 

Hippos escaping the heat against the backdrop of the Matusadona hills

Located between Zambia and Zimbabwe, Lake Kariba is about a five-hour drive from Harare. The last part of the drive is spent winding around narrow roads through the hills, surrounded by indigenous trees and thick African bush. This makes every second spent dodging potholes well worth it, and if you’re lucky, you might spot elephants that use the roads as an easy way to navigate the steep terrain. 

Sunset in Tiger Bay

There are many private lodges and safari camps to visit across the lake, all of which are most commonly accessed by taking a chartered transfer on a speed boat. 

A personal favourite location of mine is Tiger Bay in the Ume River. It’s a two-hour boat ride from the harbour if the water is smooth. This very remote piece of paradise is a part of the Matusadona National Park and is known for its protected crocodile breeding grounds. If you ever visit, be sure not to stick any arms or legs over the sides of the boat! 

Elephants near Spurwing Island in Kariba

You can take a drive over the rolling Matusadona hills, but the roads are rugged and overgrown so you’ll need a 4×4, good navigational skills and can expect another nine hours on top of your drive to get there. 

A popular way to visit the Umi is on one of the many houseboats that are available to rent out from the harbours on the mainland. Although it takes a little longer to get there, travellers can stop off at other scenic bays along the way. Cruising in the blazing heat on a houseboat at midday is done best with a cold drink in hand. This is one of my favourite ways to experience the lake, falling asleep in a different bay each night and waking up to a fresh breeze as you cruise to the next spot. 

Navistar houseboat in the bay for the evening

As its name suggests, Tiger Bay is known for its good tiger fishing spots. Nothing beats the thrill of casting a line out against the picturesque backdrop of the Matusadona hills and not knowing what you might reel in. Bream fishing is also heaps of fun, especially if you fancy the challenge of catching your dinner. Crispy, freshly cooked bream snacks in the evenings are a crowd-pleaser. The national park fishing permit regulates that only a certain amount of fish can be caught per person, to ensure that fish populations are properly conserved. 

Reeling in a big fish off of the banks of the Ume River

For those less interested in fishing, like myself, game viewing in the area is exceptional. Best done from the boat, we spotted elephants, herds of shy impala, hippo, buffalo and a plethora of incredible birdlife.

Herd of buffalo in Gordons Bay, Lake Kariba

With temperatures soaring as high as 40 degrees celsius in the day, we had to pile on the sunscreen, wear hats at all times and relax in the splash pool. The heat of a Kariba summer, though, is often eased by dramatic thunderstorms that build up in the afternoons. There is nothing better than sun tanning in the heat of the day while watching tremendous cumulonimbus clouds form above the Matusadona hills.

A summer thunderstorm building up over the Matusadona hills

With absolutely no light pollution in the evenings, except for the soft glow of burning mopane wood in the campfire, this is my favourite place to stargaze. On our last night, we were lucky enough to hear lions roaring in the distance, almost a little too close for comfort. We also used a spotlight to count seven sets of yellow crocodile eyes in one bay alone, just metres away from the boat, lurking on the surface of the water.

Campfire for the evening beneath the open skies

To make the most of your journey to the Ume River, I recommend you go for five nights or more. I always leave wishing I could stay a little longer. With close to no signal, this paradise is the ideal place to disconnect from and immerse yourself in nature.

Wire-tailed swallow perched on the branch of a dead tree

Whether you prefer a luxurious experience or something a little more rustic coming at a cheaper cost, there is a large variety of houseboats to choose from.

Beautiful colours in the saturated clouds at sunset

Pictures: Chloe Cowley


Zimbabwe Offers a Slice of Northern Delight

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