By Sue Adams
In this part of the world there is a thin line between sky and water and a fine line between living and dreaming. Lying on deck sipping a gin and tonic with elephants drinking nearby, and the sun slipping into the lake, must rate as one of the most peaceful African holidays possible. Speak to anyone who has taken a houseboat onto Kariba in Zimbabwe and the stories are legendary. The exciting fishing, the herds of game and the drinks bill all get bigger in each telling, but all are true.
At the jetty to board the houseboat in Kariba town, we are given a warm welcome by the crew that is bettered only by the hot African sun. The boat is exactly as described – a house that’s a boat. With three decks you’d think it top heavy but it just sits like a fat old lady on the lake and steadily ploughs its way through any weather.
We hardly use the bottom deck of en suite bedrooms other than as change rooms. Who wants to sleep inside when you can do so safely in the open air on the top deck, and let snorting hippo sing you to sleep? The middle deck is where the food happens and is closed in for those who might want a little air conditioning.
But the top deck is really what houseboat life is all about. Under a shaded area there is a large table for socialising and comfortable chairs and mattresses for lazing away the day. Fridges house the essential, easily accessible cold drinks and if you are lucky you might have a small swimming pool or a cage that drops into the lake when you want to swim.
The day starts with pearly, shell-pink skies and water so still you’re not sure where the sky begins. Fish Eagles perch in dead trees, their mournful cries echoing across the bay.
Nothing happens in a hurry in Africa at the best of times but even less so on Kariba mornings. We rise slowly from our comfortable mattresses on the deck and enjoy the cool breeze before the searing sun starts to take over. While we enjoy coffee the houseboat staff prepares the tender boats for game viewing and fishing. They have done this a thousand times before and sing and chat cheerfully as they go through the routine. Cooler boxes are filled with ice and drinks, boxes of earthworms are stowed away under seats ready for the bream fishermen and boats are wiped down and cleaned.
A whistle, and a smiling face appears to hurry us along. The best fishing time is now as the hippo are wandering back to the water so it’s best to get going and not miss anything. Each houseboat is usually supplied with a couple of tender boats so that everyone can choose what to do. I happily go along with some fishermen as all the fishing happens among the old wooden tree stumps along the shoreline, which makes for great photography as well as game viewing. A hippo mother and calf plod back to the water before it gets too hot but stop to graze on the green fuzz of grass on the shore and seem unfased by our little boat nearby. With a huff and puff they submerge and we steer well clear of their pool and aim for one of the partially submerged forests that were left as Lake Kariba filled. The fishermen in the know say that the bream love these areas and we soon have action on the boat with silver bream flapping at our feet.
Later we will go spinning for tiger fish, which are keen fighters and are great fun to catch. It’s not the best season for them but we do get a couple and the fishing stories flow over beers and gin every evening. And then we are told about Kariba crayfish. Clarkson Makuwerere, our skipper who has been working on Kariba boats for more than 20 years, mentions there are now crayfish in the dam. We shake our heads in disbelief and he shows us one of the traps. He promises to bait the trap and assures us we will see crayfish tomorrow and that they are edible!
Sure enough, early the next morning the kids in our group hang over the edge as he pulls up the trap. Crayfish wave their feelers at us and Clarkson asks Christopher Kaponde, the chef, to prepare some for snacks later. Kariba crayfish are delicious.
The days of eating, sleeping, fishing and game viewing blur into each other. Elephant and buffalo are amazingly relaxed and continue to feed and play as we drift past in our boat. Waterbuck, impala and zebra tiptoe to the water, aware of the huge crocodiles that prevent us from venturing in to swim. We had been warned about these so called ‘flat dogs’.
“The tourists sometimes do stupid things,” says Clarkson as we gaze down on a three-metre monster swimming alongside the boat. “They want to jump in the water when we have just seen a croc swim past.” When it’s so hot it’s tempting to swim in the lake, but once you have looked into the glassy yellow eye of one of these crocs, the temptation vanishes. Much rather you loll in the pool on deck even if it is a kiddie paddling pool.
Clarkson says he has seen big changes in the tourist industry over the years. “Kariba used to be full of people and there were houseboats in every bay, but now it’s empty,” he says. But we love the solitude and this suits us. Nevertheless we still pass a few houseboats along the way and, although Zimbabwe sure has had some problems, tourism does seem to be picking up. And Clarkson and his crew could not be more helpful and make our holiday really special. As we bid farewell to this happy crew and our home on the water, we have no doubt we will be back to experience more dreamtime.
Air Zimbabwe flies to Harare from Johannesburg and then you can book private air charter flights to Kariba. Or you can hire a car and drive the four-hour trip to Kariba.
Choosing a houseboat
There are a number of houseboat operators so shop around. Maureen Edkins from Lake Kariba Houseboats has a great website that will answer all your questions about what sort of houseboat to look for, what to pack, etc. www.karibahouseboats.com. Another contact is www.houseboatsonkariba.com which also shows you a variety of houseboats on offer.
How long to stay
Although you are busy with fishing, game viewing, eating and drinking this is quite a static holiday where it’s hard to exercise. Four to five days on the boat gives you enough time to really get into chill mode but not so much time you get restless.
What to take
Check with the houseboat people as to whether you need towels etc, but I would highly recommend binoculars, bird books, board games, reading material, hats and cameras. And not a lot of clothes – it can be a little chilly out on deck in the evening if the wind blows, but you will live in sarongs and swimming costumes.
Source: Country Life