Adrift in a sea of wildlife
Give bouncing about in a four-wheeldrive a miss and view Africa’s big game from a more sedate and seductive houseboat, writes Tony Park
DESPITE their enormous size, the elephants’ footsteps are barely audible as we drift silently alongside the herd, holding our breath as we keep pace with them just a few metres away.
We are watching big game in Africa but instead of bouncing about in the back of a Land Rover, we’re on the water, on an aluminium platform bobbing on pontoons, on the waters of Lake Kariba in Zimbabwe.
An afternoon boat cruise, watching animals, is part of the daily routine on the houseboat Return to Eden, which we have chartered from the town of Kariba, on the shores of the lake that divides Zimbabwe from Zambia.
Lake Kariba was formed in 1959 when the Zambezi River was dammed for a hydro-electricity project. The Zambezi Valley was rich in wildlife and the rising floodwaters turned hilltops into islands, stranding thousands of antelope, rhinos, big cats and other wild animals.
The Government of Rhodesia (as Zimbabwe was then known) launched Operation Noah, in which volunteers in small boats rescued those animals and relocated them to the new Matusadona National Park on the lake’s shore.
The Matusadona hills, from which the park takes its name, glow a striking pink in the dawn and dusk as Return to Eden’s captain, Satiel, pilots us around the dead trees that still poke through the lake’s waters, more than 50 years after they were flooded.
A houseboat on Lake Kariba bears little similarity to the glorified floating caravans found on Australian waterways. More ship than boat, it boasts six cabins, all with airconditioning and ensuite, an enormous upper deck for dining and lazing, and even a plunge pool.
Kariba’s climate is warm and dry from May to October and hot, sticky and wet over the summer but even at the hottest times there is usually a refreshing breeze. Covering more than 5000sq km, it is the world’s largest man-made reservoir.
As Australians, it’s hard not to think of the 1980s miniseries of the same name when we board Return to Eden, and just as crocodiles played a part in that drama (James Reyne tried to kill his on-screen wife Rebecca Gilling by feeding her to one), these menacing reptiles are very much a part of the Kariba landscape.
Kariba is also home to a stunning array of aquatic bird life, including pied kingfishers that hover busily over the water before nosediving in for the kill, and majestic fish eagles whose mournful wail is for many the sound of Africa.
We have booked Return to Eden on a self-catering basis, but the operators can also provide all meals. Self-catering really just means we bring our own food; we don’t need to cook it because chef Chris is ready to turn our basic ingredients into some creative fare.
Matusadona is a long, narrow reserve on the Zimbabwean side of the lake and is famed for its lions,