Siavonga, Lake Kariba and The Southern Belle

Your introduction is from the pied wagtails which kept us company throughout our voyage along the lake.

I travelled from Livingstone to Siavonga via the Bottom Road: Chisekesi-Gwembe-Fumbo-Siavonga.  I am told that many people are now calling the road Black Mamba because of the way it twists and turns, goes up and down through the hills of the Escarpment.  This is a great route and avoids the nasty Mazabuka-Turnpike road which is badly potholed.  There is a bad patch between Chisekesi and Gwembe but it is only 15 km.  Then there is 30 km of gravel which had been recently graded.  Because the road is through some stunning scenery this section of road is forgiven.  The road from Fumbo is perfect tar … and little traffic.

The Southern Belle

The Southern Belle is a large boat, based in Siavonga.  It has 22 rooms, all air-conditioned and ensuite.  It has a restaurant, two bars, swimming pool and conference facilities and equipment.  There are three floors on the boat with a basement!  The boat has, for the first part of 2018 been offering accommodation and a unique dining experience.  But there are plans afoot to add lake cruises along Lake Kariba to enjoy the Zambian extent of the lake.

My trip at the end of August, was a recce trip to see how the boat handled and what we could find along the way.  We were on the lake for 6 days and reached Maaze and Masape Islands where we found wildlife and a stunning location.  The islands are safe to walk, as long as the elephants are not around.  The mooring was secluded and fishing in the bay is said to be very good.   So, watch out for more information in the near future.

History of Southern Belle

The Southern Belle was fabricated in Harare in 1989 and brought to Kariba Town in bits in 1992.  In Charara Harbour the bits were put together; three years later the boat was ready to sail.  It operated for over 10 years taking international guests on a cruise for 4 nights.  Then the bottom fell out of the Zimbabwe tourism industry and the boat sat idle.  It was decided to sell it and hence the boat swapped sides and came to Zambia in 2010.  For a time, the boat was part of the Protea portfolio and then it was decided to take the boat away from Protea and leave it as a stand-alone property.

And then it sat idle again for a couple of years.  At the beginning of the year Kevin Immelman was tasked to find a future for the boat.  It needed refurbishing, the engine and mechanical bits needed to be given an overhaul and then the business side of it needed to be revamped.

Refurbishment began immediately and the boat started to offer accommodation, bar and restaurant.

Michael was one of the welders when the bits of Southern Belle were put together in Charara Harbour.  Michael stayed on with the boat, training along the way, to become the Captain of the boat.    He knows the boat from inside out.

The Story of our Trip

We were a group of 7 people and the crew – all from Siavonga except me from Livingstone.  The crew numbered around 12 and were as excited about the trip as I was.

We started the trip on Monday afternoon and took a leisurely cruise for a couple of hours, mooring at Long Bay.

This part of the trip was noisy as the kapenta rigs with their generators swarm all over the lake, chugging hither and thither.  But this was the last day we had to hear them.  From the Tuesday it was the start of the rig lay-off.  For 10 days over full moon no-one is allowed to fish on the lake.  (Zimbabwe’s lay-off lasts for 7 days.)

The next day was peaceful and we noticed all the rigs parked up along the shoreline or in bays on the islands.  Not one rig was ignoring the rule.  We cruised for about 9 hours, keeping as much as possible to the main channel.  The trees and hills are under all that water and sometimes they come close to the surface.  The Southern Belle is about 1.4 metres below the water and Michael didn’t want to hit anything.  Sometimes we could hardly see any of the mainland … lost at sea???  Michael, of course, had all the gadgets in his eyrie atop the boat – the GPS and depth finder; he knew exactly what he was doing and where he was going.

Here I have to digress a bit about the story of Lake Kariba …

As the dam was being constructed, the authorities had to find new homes for the people who lived along the Zambezi River – their homes would be under water as soon as the water rose in the dam.  The old story went that Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) got the people and Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) got the wildlife.  This is not factual.  50,000 people were relocated – 20,000 in Southern Rhodesia and 30,000 in Northern Rhodesia.  There was a massive wildlife rescue as well – Operation Noah.  Over the years as the water rose, wildlife was caught and brought to the mainland.  There is a fun story about the Federation authorities appealing to all the ladies in UK to send their old nylon stockings to aid the rescue operation.  The nylon stockings were soft and could be used to tie the legs of the animals to stop them thrashing about in the boat.

What I find surprising and I have never read any report as to why the wildlife was given protection status on the south shore and not on the north.  Along the Zimbabwe shoreline there is Matusadona National Park and Hurungwe, Charara and Chete Safari Areas.  Matusadona was declared a reserve in 1958.  No land was set aside in Zambia.

The dam happened in Federation days.  The Federation was the joining for administrative purposes Northern Rhodesia, Nyasaland (Malawi) and Southern Rhodesia.  The administrative capital was in Salisbury (Harare).  Why did the authorities not consider having a Wildlife Reserve in Northern Rhodesia?  Does anyone know? It is true that Northern Rhodesia already had massive tracts of land set aside for wildlife.  Maybe it was thought that it did not need more.

The result is that there was plenty of wildlife on the Northern Rhodesia side of the lake but, as it was not protected, it ended up being killed for food.  So all along the Zambia shore there is no wildlife.

There was no wildlife, that is true, but the scenery was dramatic, rugged and uninhabited.  Only occasionally did a makora emerge from the shore to come onto the lake.

It seems to me that it is not too late for wildlife to be given a haven along Lake Kariba in Zambia.  All over the country organisations and private companies are setting up conservancies.  The land along the lake is poor and not good for arable crops, being rocky hilltops and I am sure the cows and goats don’t want to climb them.  This is the natural habitat for wildlife which can provide food and jobs if managed properly.  And, as an aside, it can provide guests on the Southern Belle some interest in the scenery!

Getting back to my story …

On the third day we reached Chete Island.  This island has wildlife and is protected by ZamParks.  There have been attempts at running a lodge on the island but these attempts have failed because of the cost of operating in such a remote location together with paying fees to Ministry of Tourism.

There were rangers on the island and they were eager to come to greet us and collect park fees.

Wildlife on Chete includes impala, kudu, warthog, hippo, baboon, and, so the rangers told us, lions.  I assume the lions had crossed from Zimbabwe when the lake was low.

That evening as we relaxed over a beer, we watched the island but nothing came down to the shoreline.

Over dinner we discussed our options for the following day.  The wildlife on Chete seemed wild and not a destination for future guests – it would not be advisable to go for walks on the island if it had lions …

It was decided that we would do a quick spin around the island in a speedboat … just to have a look … and then we would go further to Maaze Island.  And this is what we did.  The ride around the island did not do anything for our impressions of Chete as a good destination.  Onwards and forwards …

Maaze wasn’t too far away and we found a beautiful bay to moor.   The wildlife on the island includes impala, kudu, baboon, eland, warthog, bushpig and elephant.  The elephant spend about 8 months of year on the island.  The wildlife was grazing on the shore and the fishing looked good.  The owner of the island, Sean came over with Jo, Conor and Paul and stayed the night.  Over dinner Kevin and Sean discussed the logistics and feasibility of the Southern Belle visiting Maaze from time to time.  All was resolved in a friendly manner.

Although we would have liked to stay a day at Maaze to explore the island it was agreed that we would head back to Siavonga … early the next morning … unhitched in the dark and off as soon as the sun emerged from the horizon.

We spent two days on the return journey, stopping off at Kotakota Peninsula.  Kotakota has a mystery behind it.  ….

Some years ago, a company came to Kotakota and bought the land.  The peninsula was fenced; a luxury lodge was built; wildlife was brought in; an airstrip was constructed along with hangars.  The original plan was to offer luxury hunting safaris, but later the idea changed to photographic tourism.  A very natty brochure was produced to promote Kotakota … but, as far as we know, no-one ever stayed there.  The property was abandoned some years ago.  Everything was left as if the owners had gone away for the weekend … but they never returned.

Rumours abound but nothing I can print!

Final comments

I really enjoyed my trip.  It was interesting to see … now I know … I could just ‘tick that one off’, but I would love to go again.

It would also prove to be a good family time.  Cellphone connection was available off and on but, basically we were out of communication with the rest of the world.  My cellphone was off.  How special is that?  No computer, no cellphone … a total detox.  How many times have we, as parents, ignored the children as we stare at some screen or another???  The cruise is ideal for a family outing.

The boat has loads of board games and cards.  I could not find other bridge players so Kevin, Gary and I spent a long time doing a 1,000-piece jigsaw.   I would love to go on another trip with other people who could play bridge …  A Bridge Cruise?

There are loads of options for the Southern Belle and I hope Kevin comes up with a plan soon.

As I said, the participants on this cruise were all from Siavonga.  Here is Steve’s video of the journey, with a bit of poetic licence.  The hope is that Kevin can organise trips to the mainland from Maaze to see one of Africa’s largest crocodile farms, known, not only for its huge crocodile, but also the incredible birding experience.  Steve is the owner of Eagles Rest.