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Lake Kariba, Zimbabwe

28 August 2017

Since his retirement, founding editor Jannie Herbst has certainly not spent most of his time reading, sitting on a rocking chair on the front porch, or watching the World Bowls Championship on television. Instead, he’s been ticking off some bucket list trips. On his latest venture, he took a VW California Beach all the way to Lake Kariba in Zimbabwe – to ride on a boat.

If paradise is sharing your first cuppa of the day with fish eagles and their raucous cries and the happy snorting of hippos as the sun rises over Lake Kariba, then a trip on the houseboat Lady Jacqueline is right up your alley. The missus, our two grown sons, and some friends went on-board the 65-foot Lady Jacqueline, near the town of Binga on the shores of Kariba, after a four-hour drive from Victoria Falls. We were immediately impressed with the houseboat. Not only was it larger than it appeared on their website, but the finishings and furnishings were far better than our collective expectations. On the lower deck were two spacious and modern air-conditioned en-suite bedrooms and two more cabins with six bunk beds. The crew of three had their own quarters and ablutions in the prow of the boat, and the overall impression was one of cozy and understated luxury.

A spacious sunbathing area on the upper deck featured a bar and two fridges stocked with a variety of wine, beers and cooldrinks that were preordered. We took along our own spirits but the boat rental fee includes 10 drinks per person per day. A bottle of wine is the equivalent of six drinks while sparkling or still water, beer or cold drinks count as one. An ice machine ensures drinks are always cool which is a necessity on Kariba. The mid-deck area houses captain and helmsman Steve’s quarters, the chef’s kitchen and a large lounge. The lounge is furnished with comfy sofas and chairs, there is a large selection of reading material (novels, animal/fish books and Kariba history), a variety of board games and a DVD player with a selection of movies and music. Also on this deck is a breakfast nook and Jacuzzi, ensuring that all home comforts are taken care of. The chef’s kitchen and breakfast nook fall under the domain of a jovial character named Takesure who, when we sat down to dinner on the upper deck, politely enquired: “How would you like your fillet steak, Mr Jannie?”

It was a nice touch, the fillet was perfectly done and complemented by crispy baked potatoes, pumpkin, green beans and a fresh salad. Dessert was apple tart and cream and, while on the subject of food, our group was mightily impressed with Takesure’s culinary skills. Despite a cramped kitchen, Takesure produced meals that were filling and appetising and served with flair at a table setting with cloth serviettes nogal. Breakfasts were a variety of cereals, yogurt, fruit, bacon or sausage and eggs, toast, muffins, mushrooms and savoury mince. Pasta, cold meats and salad, or fish and chips was usually the fare for lunch. Our second dinner was an excellent chicken dish and on our last night on-board, Takesure decreed a change of venue. This turned out to be a traditional braai on shore served with sadza, the Zimbabwe version of stywe pap. Other memorable dishes were a tasty banana/caramel cheesecake and homemade crumpets with syrup. From early morning, fresh coffee and tea were always available with cookies and rusks. The view of the surrounding lake made meal times an idyllic experience.

Captain Steve and his crew could not have been more helpful or accommodating despite being constantly busy with a variety of chores. Serviettes were washed and hung out to dry every morning and when Moore, the deckhand, spotted us making our bed he indignantly pro-tested and chased us away. Anyone who has not been to Kariba is missing out on one of the wonders of the world. Built along the Zambezi River, the man-made lake is a huge fresh water sea and was filled between 1958 and 1963. Kariba measures 280 kilometres in length and 40 kilometres across at its widest point, and because the valley was not cleared prior to flooding, forests of petrified trees jut from the water. I know all this because one of the books in the lounge was about the history of the lake and Operation Noah which, a huge wildlife rescue operation that lasted from 1958 until 1964. Needless to say, a pair of local officials appeared just before we left shore on the first day of our trip to collect the compulsory conservation and park fees and fishing permits. The conservation and parks fees are $20 per person, and fishing permits $5 per person per day.

Two 16-foot tender boats are towed behind the Lady Jacqueline for game viewing and fishing, with anglers lusting over an opportunity to land one of Kariba’s legendary tigerfish. The Herbst offspring are no different in this respect, but perseverance never paid off and the two sons never had so much as the hint of a bite. Sightings of game were also a tad disappointing. Good rainfall in the area meant plenty of watering holes in the bush and there was no need for animals like elephant, giraffe and antelope to come to the water’s edge to drink. We did see an abundance of crocodile and hippo while the birdlife was stunning, but what can be better than sharing quality time with family and close friends on a houseboat on Lake Kariba? Fishing and game viewing were never priorities, and a great time was had by simply lazing around with good conversation, enjoying a gin and tonic in the Jacuzzi and looking forward to another of Takesure’s culinary surprises.

Our four-day cruise took us to Nyembra Island, the mouth of the Ruze River and back to Nyembra for the last night before returning to the mooring in Binga. The bare branches of the famous drowned trees silhouetted against legendary big sky sunsets with the calm water turning golden in the dusk linger forever in the memory. Anyone without a trip on a Lake Kariba houseboat on their bucket list should remedy the oversight immediately. Africa is blessed with an abundance of incredible places to visit… this is one of them.

Getting to Binga
The quickest route to Binga would have been to enter Zimbabwe at the Plumtree Border Post just north of Francistown in Botswana. We decided, however, to go via Kasane and sample the popular sunset boat cruise on the Chobe River, with a visit to Victoria Falls thrown in before we kept our date with The Lady Jacqueline. After picking up Jaco and Barbara in Pretoria at around 8am, we set sail for our overnight stop at the Elephant Sands in Botswana where we were hoping to enjoy a sundowner in the company of the elephants who like to drink from the waterhole in the centre of the camp. It was a disappointment when the elephants failed to arrive but we were in high spirits at the prospects of what lay ahead.

The distance from our Randburg home base was 1 263km but we were in the ultra-comfortable VW California camper van that includes a pop-up roof tent and two fold down seat mattresses that sleep two. We never needed to sample these but the diesel-powered bus exudes style, perfectly matched by quality engineering, comfort and performance. The second day was a short 255km stretch to Kasane, but we were hugely disappointed to find so many potholes on what is a relatively new road. Four years ago we marvelled at this Chinese construction but they somehow got it wrong. We destroyed one tyre after hitting the mother of all potholes and were lucky there was no further damage. The problem is that the road is excellent in parts and then, without warning, potholes appear. We were greeted in Kasane by elephant and the many warthog that roam the town. It is not strange to see elephant in the middle of the town, and on a previous trip, we watched in silent awe as a herd destroyed a palisade fence surrounding a private residence.

The three-hour sunset cruise along the river is never a disappointment, and staying at the Chobe Safari Lodge is always a treat. The wildlife along the river, and the view into Zambia across the mass of water that is the Chobe, is awesome and the food at the lodge, outstanding. It is a short hop of 80km from the lodge to the town of Victoria Falls via the Kazungula Border Post into Zimbabwe where we checked in at the Victoria Falls Rest Camp and Lodges. Exploring local landmarks is always interesting and the stunning Victoria Falls Hotel, dating back to colonial time, still has an aura and atmosphere about it. The following morning we visited the mighty Victoria Falls before tackling the 310km haul to Binga where the highlight of our trip was waiting. There is not much one can say about the Victoria Falls: it is a spectacle that has to be seen to be believed. You leave with a feeling of awe at what wonders nature produces.

It took more than four hours to travel the 310km to Binga as once we turned off the A8 at Crossroads, we were in hilly and scenic country with lots of stilted Tonga villages along the way. Sadly, the road is in terrible shape and at times we were reduced to a crawl. Much to our relief, the touring company instructions where to find The Lady Jacqueline were spot on and she was ready to lift anchor. It was much to our relief that we found the bus unharmed under the same tree at the small lodge where we had left it four days before. We braced ourselves for the trip back and were relieved when we reached the A8 from where it was plain sailing to Francistown. We headed south to the Plumtree Border Post via Bulawayo and 620km later, reached Francistown just before dark. Our lodge was close to a modern shopping mall and we were surprised to find a great many eateries from which to choose. We eventually settled for an Ocean Basket where the service was friendly and the food perfectly acceptable. The last stretch of our adventure was a 770km haul back to Randburg and when we totted-up the total distance covered, it came to 2 830km. The VW bus used fuel at the rate of 10.31 litres per 100 kilometres which was impressive given the variety of road surfaces and terrain.

A few facts and figures:
We were fined for speeding once in Botswana (300 pula/R376) and for not stopping at a stop sign in Zimbabwe ($20/R255). We did stop, but the policeman was determined to augment his retirement fund. You get stopped often in Zimbabwe but for the most part we found the police to be friendly and courteous, with the exception of our stop street friend. A trick we have learnt after multiple visits to Botswana is to use the small border post at Stockpoort and not the more popular Grobler’s Bridge. It saves a lot of time and hassle.

Text and photographs: Jannie Herbst