Siavonga is known as the ‘Riviera of Zambia’ as the town is spread out along the northern bank of Lake Kariba and is host to local and foreign holidaymakers all year round.

The ‘riviera’ image is enhanced by an affluent Zambian community as business people from out of town invest in holiday homes in the area. The spectacular Kariba Dam wall is nearby, which is also the Kariba border crossing into Zimbabwe. Only a 2.5-hour drive on good roads from Zambia’s capital, Lusaka, it is both a popular weekend getaway as well as a conference destination for the Lusaka business community. Photographers and artists are enthralled by the creative opportunities offered by this inland ocean.

The Zambezi Valley is very hot in the summer months (October to March) but luckily cooled by the summer rains. In winter it has warm, dry days and cool nights (April to September).


Although Lake Kariba is a vast body of water body (282km / 175mi long and up to 100m / 328ft deep), it is more correctly a dam, as the water is held back by a huge dam wall (128m / 410ft high and spanning 617m / 2 024ft across the Kariba Gorge). It is the largest man-made reservoir in the world. This engineering feat was completed in 1959 when the Zambezi River was dammed in a joint electricity-generation project between Zimbabwe and Zambia. Between the two power stations on the north and the south banks of the Zambezi River, 1300 megawatts of power can be generated, making it an important resource in the region. A welcome by-product of this construction is the associated tourism industry, mostly in the form of houseboat rentals and cruises.


  • Siavonga iswo and a half hours drive from Lusaka
  • Kariba Dam was constructed between 1956 and 1960
  • Kariba Dam is 282 kilometres long and 100 metres deep
  • The Dam Wall is 128m high and spanning 617m

There is not much big game on the Zambian side of the lake except for hippo and crocodile that are frequently seen, making swimming a dangerous activity. There is exceptionally rich birdlife associated with Kariba, as well as over 50 species of fish, including the tigerfish, tilapia, nembwe, vundu and barbel that grow into massive specimens in this enormous water body

In 1956 the Federal Government of Rhodesia and Nyasaland (now Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi), awarded the tender for the construction of the dam wall and power station to the Italian consortium of Impresit. The Kariba Dam wall was designed by the French engineer and specialist in arch dams, Andre Coyne. It had to be engineered to cope with a flow of approximately 10-million litres / 2.6-million gallons of water per second. The dam took four years to build between 1956 and 1960. On the 16th of May 1960, Kariba Dam was officially opened by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother of Britain. At the end of the project the sluice gates were closed and in 1963 the dam reached its capacity of 180-billion tons of water. The weight of this water is believed to have caused the increased seismicity in this area since 1960.

Now called Lake Kariba, this water body is by volume the largest man-made reservoir in the world. Local resistance to the project was considerable, believed to be against the wishes of the Tonga river god, Nyami Nyami (also known as the Zambezi River God or Zambezi Snake Spirit). The legend of Nyami Nyami relates that a particular rock on the swirling river’s edge, at the entrance to the Kariba Gorge where the dam wall was built, was where this deity lived. This very practical legend tells how Nyami Nyami would cause anyone who ventured too close to the river’s edge to be sucked down into its depths forever. During construction of the dam, Tonga villagers believed that he was displeased and that all the many accidents causing delays to the project were directly due to this displeasure. The name Kariba means ‘trap’, and this refers to his trap of unsuspecting people as well as the trapping of this vast water body. The legendary rock is now buried well below the water surface, and today carvings of the Nyami Nyami symbol, representing this rock, are sold as accessories and tourist souvenirs.

As the dam began to fill, thousands of animals were stranded on islands soon to be inundated with water. Appeals were made and money was raised to buy boats and equipment to launch Operation Noah, a rescue and relocation mission. The mammoth task of rescuing over 7 000 animals, including 44 rhinoceros, was fraught with the difficulties of dealing with huge concentrations of snakes, including the deadly black mamba.

The Kariba hydroelectric scheme is one of Southern Africa’s most important power-generating stations, producing up to 1 300 megawatts of electricity, making the area ideal for industry.

Most of the industry in Siavonga is dependent on the lake. Kapenta fishing (a type of sardine or sprat) is hugely important to the area. Kapenta is one of Zambia‘s staple high-protein foods and there are many commercial fishing companies in Siavonga. Commercial bream fishing and crocodile farming are also carried out. Crocodiles are bred for their leather that is exported for fashion accessories such as shoes, belts and handbags. The crocodile tail also provides an exotic culinary delicacy sold to hotels and restaurants.

Siavonga has a developing quarrying industry with the cutting of natural stone into tiles. Uranium was also discovered in the district: the Mutanga Uranium Project is in its planning stages.

Oral tradition places the Tonga people in the area, in what was known as the Gwembe Valley, now the Zambezi Valley, for centuries. Archaeological evidence has uncovered the existence of human habitation along the river for at least the past 900 years. The people planted their crops in the fertile soil on the banks of the Zambezi River and hunted to supplement their diet. Prior to David Livingstone’s mission in the area in the 1850s, the Tonga were at the mercy of slaving parties. For the century until the mid-1950s they lived in relative peace with very little influence from outside. By the mid-1950s life changed indelibly with the decision to build the Kariba Dam, and another chapter in Tonga history began.

When the Tonga people heard that they were to be moved from their tribal lands and the great Zambezi River was to be blocked, they believed it would anger the river god Nyami Nyami so much that he would cause the water to boil and destroy the white man’s bridge. In 1957, a year into the building of the dam, the river flooded, destroying equipment and access roads. The very next year another even bigger flood occurred, this time destroying the access bridge, the coffer dam and parts of the main wall. This was the cause of much labour unrest on the project.

Over 50 000 mostly Tonga people had to be relocated, in some instances forcibly and against their will by the army. The move was a severe disruption of their way of life and there was minimal if any compensation. The building of the dam also separated the Tonga tribe with some of them now living in Zimbabwe. Dispensation has been made to allow relatives to visit each other across the border needing only cursory approval from the Immigration Offices.

Today most of the Tonga live as subsistence farmers and those living close to the lake supplement their diet with fish. Wealthier families possess herds of goats or cattle and some plant small fields of maize and cotton. Poverty and disease remain a constant battle for every family. Water must be fetched from boreholes, wells or even from the lake itself. Most families in the rural areas live in small villages (usually extended families together) without much electricity or running water. Many villages are in isolated areas along the lake and are only often accessible by foot or by boat. The roads are often in a bad state of repair, especially after a good rainy season. The wealth that the Kariba Dam brought to some has not necessarily reached the original inhabitants of the region.

The Tonga culture is steeped in ancestral worship and rituals led by a shaman or ‘witch doctor’. These practices were deemed by ignorant early white colonists to be witchcraft and frowned upon, even outlawed, as being anti-Christian, and this has been a severe disruption to the Tonga tradition and way of life.

Initiation ceremonies were (and sometimes still are) held for both girls and boys. Girls were eligible for marriage from the age of 14 or 15 (the legal age for both men and women is now 21 but Zambia has a plural system that incorporates customary law). Lobola, or bride wealth, is paid as a token of appreciation to the parents of the girl, often placing a great financial burden on the husband, who often has to pay off the lobola over many years.

Funerals are also significant occasions in the villages and grief is shown by wailing, singing and the beating of drums. The men sit outside during the funeral and the women crowd inside the house of the deceased. Family and friends pay respect and to show their condolences by contributing food or money towards the ceremony. The spirit of the deceased must be appeased and the ceremony ensures that it is happy and at rest. If the husband who has died has a brother, he will sometimes take on the care of his widowed sister-in-law and her children as his family. Polygamy is still practiced although it is usually only the chiefs and headmen who are wealthy enough to support more than one wife.