By Devon Maylie
MOST TRAVELERS to Zimbabwe focus on Victoria Falls, a 360-foot-high cascade that is one of the seven natural wonders of the world. They marvel at the view and the noise and the mist, sometimes delighting at getting drenched from the far side of the gorge.
But that's not where we were going.
Our 12-seat plane was aimed several hundred miles north, at another body of water that also straddles the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia. Lake Kariba, created by a hydroelectric dam an Italian company built on the Zambezi River in the 1950s, is nearly the size of the Delaware, covering more than 2,000 square miles. It is one of the largest human-made bodies of water in the world; quite by accident, it is also one of the most biodiverse areas in southern Africa, home to lions, crocodiles and dense forests of teak trees that hug the water's edge.
In contrast to well-trod spots in neighboring countries-like Botswana's Okavango Delta, with its exclusive safari lodges-Lake Kariba is playing catch-up after a decade of unrest and often violent political upheaval in Zimbabwe. Most of the country was abandoned by international travelers when farm seizures took off along with inflation. Election violence in 2008 again caused a dip in visitors from abroad. But since then a measure of stability has encouraged some tourists to return, a handful of them to forgotten gems like Lake Kariba.
It was at the lake in 2007, on a houseboat surrounded by nesting fish eagles and hungry crocodiles, that President Robert Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai, the country's prime minister and a member of the opposition party, scratched out early plans for a shared government that exists today. With Mr. Mugabe's party pushing for elections this year that will test the promises made for a peaceful shared government, it seemed fitting to come to the lake-even if we were looking for hippopotamus, not political answers.
After an hourlong flight from Harare (it's a 4½-hour drive on mostly paved roads) the lake appeared on the horizon, glittering turquoise under an unforgiving sun. We touched down briefly at the Kariba town airport, a two-room hall where a metal detector sat unused against the wall, then launched into the air again for Bumi Hills Safari Lodge, on the other side of the lake.
The flooding caused by the dam decades ago displaced thousands of animals: Elephants, lions, zebras and antelope were left stranded on newly formed islands. The result, locals joke, was a Zimbabwean Noah's Ark; boats were rallied to ferry wart hogs and rhinoceros to safety.
Today, a few of the islands remain-in fact, elephants can occasionally be seen swimming between them. Most of the animals, though, live in the few nature reserves dotted along the lake, all of which ban hunting. Our goal on Kariba was to see as much wildlife as possible from the water. Two friends and I, including a Zimbabwean-born pal who hadn't been home for years, had three days to scour the shores for creatures large and small, harmless and hazardous.
After soaring above herds of elephants and skirting a family of hippopotamus, we landed on red sand on the lake's southwestern shore. Dry heat enveloped us as soon as we disembarked. We piled into an open-sided jeep that waited at the end of the runway and drove uphill, scattering nervous antelope as we wove through thick bushes along the shore's swampy edge.
When we rounded a bend near the top, the trees parted to frame a seemingly endless view of the lake, insulated by layers of hills. Though we were in a landlocked country, Kariba seemed to be as vast as an ocean.
Many visitors to Lake Kariba rent multilevel houseboats staffed with cooks and crew. But the boats guzzle gas, and with the uncertain investment climate in Zimbabwe, many owners have let their vessels fall into disrepair. The good ones are rented early for the busy holiday season.
We had opted to stay at Bumi Hills, a modern 20-room lodge resuscitated in 2009 by a group of Harare investors. Equipped with eating decks and a bar, the lodge hangs off the edge of a hill next to Matusadona National Park, overlooking the water. Ten luxury rooms with private decks face the lake; there is an infinity pool next to the open-air lobby.
But we weren't going to spend our days there-after breakfast the next morning, accompanied by the snort of elephants hidden in nearby trees, we trooped down to the dock and boarded a 30-foot catamaran owned by the lodge. Less luxurious than a houseboat but more intimate, it comfortably held four people. With its sails and shallow draft, the boat was ideal for creeping up to the shoreline to watch animals frolicking in and near the water. Ours also came loaded with sunscreen and gin and tonic.
It was tempting to drag our fingers in the cool lake waters, but the captain, Aranga Dube, sank into his spot at the tiller, then issued a sharp warning: Keep your hands in the boat. Nile crocodiles, known to attack almost anything unfortunate enough to encounter them, hunt in the lake. There is a story of one boater who reached into the water to untangle some debris from his engine and lost his hand.
Mr. Dube hoisted the sails and sent us gliding into the lake. The water, deep and studded with the remains of dead trees, was still roiling from a storm that had passed through the night before, and we made slow, choppy progress. I settled in, rocking with the boat's motion, binoculars in hand. Layers of velvety purple mountains extended into the distance. I focused my lenses on a family of elephants lumbering toward the water, and we pulled closer to shore. Yards away, from us a baby elephant with wobbly legs watched as two several-ton adults tumbled over one another in the lake. The week before, Mr. Dube said, he'd spotted an elephant swimming underwater, its snout poking up like a piece of snorkeling equipment.
The elephants came back onto land, sprayed red earth over themselves and trekked back into the trees. We moved on. We passed fish eagles nesting in dead stumps. When the midday sun beat down, Mr. Dube unfurled a thick net at the back of the boat, allowing us to take a dip without risking being attacked by crocodiles or hippos.
Staying clear of the Zambia-Zimbabwe border to avoid the patrols meant to stop Zimbabweans trying to leave a country with a 90% unemployment rate, the boat slipped into Matusadona National Park. Near the bank, we spotted what looked like a stick with eyes, a baby croc that eventually swam off. Behind the boat a cluster of hippos yawned. Two adult elephants walked along the shore.
As the orange sun set, we mixed up some gin and tonics. The drinks, we joked, would help us ignore the mosquitoes that had started swarming. We settled in and glided home, past fishermen lit by the setting sun. ...