The Big Catch At Kariba


Bill and Merlin Atkinson and Mom with the big catch at Lake Kariba, 1964

The Big Catch at Kariba

The rescue of wild animals from the rising waters of Lake Kariba was called Operation Noah. Clouds of birds came to feed on insects and rodents as they were flushed from their nests as they submerged.  Sheets of ants floated on the surface of the lake.  In the water below tigerfish rampaged with the glut of insects.

The Big Catch at Kariba

Sometimes the lake rose as much as ten feet a day.  Drowning mopane trees shed their bark but the wood endured as a petrified forest.  Sometimes trees dripped with snakes, at other times they were festooned with birds like fish, snake, hawk, and martial eagles or cormorants, storks, vultures, hornbills, and hoopoes.  When the lake stabilized, fish inhabited the petrified forests.

My family never went fishing.  But in 1964 we were invited to join the Atkinsons of the Turtle Mine and the De Beers of the Roasting Plant on a fishing trip to Kariba.

They had boats and the gear, with enough to spare to kit us out too.  We reserved chalets on the water.  I brought along my best friend, Doffy Newham from St. Peter’s Diocesan School in Bulawayo.  She also knew nothing about fishing. Her father, who had been the postmaster in Salisbury, now in retirement farmed chinchillas for their pelts.  They were running out of names for the chinchillas and I wondered how long the business would last.

As was customary, we brought our servants and our food supplies with us.   Still, it seemed to take a lot to get us going and actually launched in the mornings.

We were schooled on the types of spoons used to attract different kinds of fish, especially the fighting tigerfish.  It was a science we soon realized.  Alternatively we could use fresh bait: smallish fish or frogs. Tigerfish are even cannibals, going for strips of the underbelly neatly threaded on a hook.  All the same, they could strip a hook clean without hooking themselves, so they said. They were unpredictable once hooked, going off at a terrific pace in any direction, leaping up into the air here and there, giving the angler a real workout, as he was played out.

Although tasty, tigerfish were not one for the frying pan, having too many forked, fine bones. Bream (tilapia), as delicious as sole, were the thing to catch for good eating.  They required a very light line, baited with worms, flying ants or grasshoppers.  It all depended on what fish you were after.   What were Doffy and I after?  We’d rather stroke chinchillas.

But, once we set out, it was a vundu, a huge catfish, that Mom caught, really without even trying, with a left over chicken leg from lunch for bait.  It came up for a short run and then lay down again on the bottom and sulked. Bill Atkinson tried all sorts of maneuvers to get it moving again, to no avail. Finally when everyone had forgotten about it, including Mom, it came to life and gave a good account of itself before Bill, tall, strong and sinewy, leaned over with a gaff and hauled it in.

As well as avoiding submerged trees, Kariba weed was a hazard. It was quite a job, tilting the motor up, leaning over and pulling the mass of tangled weed from it.  It also formed great floating islands.  Not only did these carpet the lake but they were thick and deep, so that it seemed you could walk on them.  Like much else at Kariba they were fabulous but we only thought of them as a threat to the boats, the lake itself and the hydro electric turbines.

See epic pictures of the building of Kariba made available by Alan Smith on Eddy Norris’ web site.





  • Betty Goolsby

    Reply Reply April 15, 2011

    Huge, fabulous catfish! Did you cook and eat it there or did you put it in ice to take home….it must have been some fish fry. What fun! Did you bait your own hooks, Diana? I see you going in for the kill and being courageous and strong! It sounds like a really great get-away, and with the servants along, even better! By the way, were the DeBeers from the diamond DeBeers? That wold be interesting to hear about…..did you know anything about diamond mining and was it in that area?
    This was a treat to read this week!

    • Diana

      Reply Reply April 18, 2011


      You won’t believe it but we didn’t eat vundu. The servants smoked it. I got over the squeemish part and got stuck in but I much preferred to swim and stay cool rather than hassel all that top side with floats and snarled lines and so on, hence no pictures of any catch of mine.

      No, so far as I know the De Beers were not related to the ‘diamonds are forever’ family. Alan De Beer was the manager of the Roasting Plant in Que Que. Refractory ores from the 269 small mines in the area were roasted there giving a 90% recovery of gold. It was the only such plant in the country and was government subsidized. The small mines couldn’t afford this type of facility independently. A bi-product was arsenious oxide used in cattle dipping and this became the sole source of it when the sanctions from the outside world were applied in 1965 following the country’s ill advised UDI.

      Diamonds were unknown in this country, although we mined a huge variety of metals and stones. Emeralds from Sondowana were exploited, sold at vastly inflated prices as people sought an alternative way to get money out of the country as they immigrated in droves after UDI in 1965 and strict exchange control was applied.

      But in 2006 De Beers, the ‘diamonds are forever’ company, let their prospecting contract in the far western part of the country lapse and yes, you guessed it, the largest diamond discovery of the century was made there at Marange. The proceeds of these diamonds are what is propping up the Zimbabwe despot. Its a huge, huge, huge tragedy.



  • Val Barbour

    Reply Reply May 14, 2011

    Hi Diana this picture is in mom’s 90th birthday book of memories!

    • Diana

      Reply Reply May 15, 2011

      Val, Yes its a lovely one! Very happy. And I can assure you its the only vundu Mom ever caught. I had forgotten how big they got.


    Reply Reply September 14, 2011

    Hi Diana,
    You tried to contact me last Xmas when I was in Australia but the computer I was working on was very unco-operative! I wrote about three letters in reply to yours and lost all of them! I was so mad that I just gave up. Once back in Zim, internet was very intermittent due to zesa(power) shortages…again, life kinda took over. I am now at our holiday flat in Ramsgate, RSA and have access to broadband. I decided to make one last ditch effort to make contact. I await your reply.
    Regards, Lez.

    • Diana

      Reply Reply September 14, 2011

      Lez, Its wonderful to hear from you! Thanks for being so persistent, I know only too well how frustrating computers can be! You certainly seem to have been getting around the world without a computer nevertheless. I remember Daralyn Ogley, a few years younger than me, but better I remember Mr. Ogley as a council member with my Dad, heavy set, but handsome and swarthy with a very melodious voice. Vic Jenkinson, the architect I remember well, and have a few pictures of him at Echo Park at the Annual Area Get Together Day Of African Women from the mines, churches and townships. Thought I might write about that on the blog. Know anything more about it? Have you got any stories or photos you would like to share with me? Would love it if you did. The novel is almost done…slogging away. Diana

      • Lez

        Reply Reply September 15, 2011

        Contact @ last ! I am heading back to Zim next week and will get hold of you from there. It is much easier for me to work thru e.mail….pls send yours to my address. Thks so much.

        • Diana

          Reply Reply September 15, 2011

          Look forward to hearing from you soon. Be safe! Diana

  • Robert McNeel

    Reply Reply April 10, 2023

    Hi Diana
    This moment is very nice. You are looking pretty.

    • Diana Polisensky

      Reply Reply April 23, 2023

      That was a long time ago! That is my mother, Joan Hirsch, in the yellow dress with the Atkinson’s.

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