Kariba has a lot of causes and reasons to celebrate from an array of great achievements from its tough and arduous formative years. Operation Noah is one of them and should be befittingly celebrated in February every year.
The story of Operation Noah shows the power of the media, even in those olden days. It is not certain if the Operation Noah would have gathered the momentum it did or gained its moniker if an observant feature writer on the Rhodesian Sunday Mail, Malcolm Dunbar, had not pursued a short article he saw in a local newspaper. In that particular article, Dick Isemonger, the owner of a snake park outside Salisbury (now Harare) reported that he had brought back forty-seven snakes from Kariba taken from the new lake emerging there. Some animals were being rescued from drowning.
Dunbar went to Kariba to see for himself. That trip changed the fate of wild animals, through the stroke of a pen; for on 15th February 1959 the Sunday Mail carried an article that captivated the attention of the whole world, being reblogged and shared all over the world, to use modern terms. His descriptions were so graphic that imaginations were set whirling. It was Dunbar and the Sunday Mail that gave the initiative its name, describing it aptly as “the biggest animal rescue operation since Noah”, according to Frank Clements’s book simply titled “Kariba” written during those days and published on 19 November 1959.
The Editor of the Sunday Mail, Ferraz Austin, weighed in with a leader article on the front page of the paper, musing about the fate of the hapless animals faced with certain death from the fast-rising waters of the new lake. He urged the government to mobilise volunteers to rescue the animals.
The international media onslaught that followed the Sunday Mail articles forced rather reluctant authorities to reconsider their approach to the emerging crisis. Soon Kariba was flooded with journalists, cameramen and television crew – at one stage they outnumbered the game rangers and volunteers undertaking the operation. The great engineering hydro-electricity project that had just taken shape at Kariba was immediately followed by “the greatest environmental upset ever to befall a population of animals and birds within the African continent, in the history of man” according to R.H.N. Smithers, writing in 1959.
There is every reason to celebrate, commemorate and glorify the achievements of these poorly-equipped brave men who risked their lives simply because they could not stomach watching helplessly as wildlife perished through drowning. Altogether, 4914 animals, both big and small, excluding birds, were rescued. No one bothered to record those that perished.
The striking contrast to the present day situation should bring into focus Operation Noah’s importance. Whilst rising waters were the cause of death then, receding shorelines driven by climate change-induced droughts are the new threat to wildlife and humans alike today.
For me, as a privileged Kariba resident, benefiting from the great heroics of a courageous preceding generation, February doesn’t just bring romantic moments at Valentine’s Day. I cruise on the waters of Lake Kariba in a comfortable houseboat, with my loved ones, of course, to the Matusadona National Park to enjoy an inheritance bequeathed to us by a generation that lived before us. I consider it a pilgrimage to pay homage to caring and courageous efforts by a preceding generation. It’s a double celebration – of selfless love and courage.
February is a great month to visit Kariba. The story you tell after your visit could change someone’s world, like Malcom Dunbar’s did. See you when you get here.
By Laiton Kandawire
About the author: Laiton is an area-based Kariba Destination Planner. He writes in his personal capacity and can be reached on +263 772 817733 or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.