Matusadona, or Matuzviadonha, means ‘falling dung’, and probably comes from the elephants and buffalo that roam the area, and the ‘parcels’ of fertiliser they leave behind. The park hugs the southwestern shoreline of Lake Kariba, one of the largest man-made lakes in the world, stretching over 5 400km2. However, the lake was only built in the 1950s, and before then, this area was almost impossible to get to. Two-thirds of it lies south of the Zambezi escarpment formed by the 600m high Matusadona Hills. Even now, access within the 1 500km2 reserve is mainly on foot or by boat from the Lake Kariba shoreline.
After the dam wall was completed, Lake Kariba filled much more rapidly than was anticipated, and many of the animals were rescued in Operation Noah, one of the most dramatic animal rescue operations ever undertaken anywhere in the world. Led by Rupert Fothergill, teams of game rangers and volunteers ferried over 5 000 creatures in makeshift boats to the shoreline. To this day colourful stories of these men and their wild rescue adventures capture the imagination of all who visit.
The park now holds strong populations of most mammals occurring in the Zambezi Valley. Buffalo are especially prominent and herds of up to 1 000 strong often congregate along the shoreline in the dry season. It is also home to the second largest population of lion in Africa and is one of the last strongholds of the black rhino. The game viewing opportunities here are endless, it is a true wilderness area – rugged and vast.
As the sun sets blood red over the western shore of the lake, it casts a deep purple shadow over the towering mountain range. Now add the eerie cries of the fish eagles that cruise the skies above the glass flat water, its shallows haunted with the massive skeletons of petrified Mopane and Leadwood trees, and you have one of the most strikingly beautiful scenes in Africa. It is an incredible contrast between rugged mountain country and open flat plains. There are over 240 different species of birds to search for, as well as endless expanses of water. One of the main attractions of Matusadona is fishing. The crocodiles here grow to storybook sizes, and there is nothing quite like watching a 6-metre monster glide silently through the shallows, only to disappear without so much as a ripple. Although the game viewing and fishing in this area is consistently good all year round, during the rainy season between October and February it does become extremely hot and humid, so pack your hat and sunscreen!
The greatest legend that prevails over the shores of the lake and throughout the whole Zambezi Valley, is the wonderful tale of the Nyami Nyami. This ancient river god takes the form of a dragon with a snake’s torso and a fish head, and is believed to be the protector of the river and the Tonga people. Angered by the construction of the Lake, Nyami Nyami sent a mighty flood to demolish the construction works. In 1957 the river rose over 30 metres, and 15 000 cubic metres of water raced through the gorge every second, nearly demolishing the partly built dam. Engineers called it a 1 000 year flood, and building continued. However, the following year another flood, just as great, all but destroyed the wall. Finally, the local tribe were consulted, Nyami Nyami was placated, and the wall was completed. In 1960 Queen Elizabeth flicked the switch to start the Kariba generators. Still to this day, some of the local people believe that one day Nyami Nyami will destroy the wall, returning the river to its original state, and reuniting him with his wife who was trapped on the other side of the floodgate.
Although the Matusadona National Park is largely unknown in comparison to its more famous counterparts, the contrast between lake, mountains and flat open plains offer such a wide variety of opportunities that it should be high up on any visitor’s list.