13 December 2015

Kariba Dam

It was hot!  Really hot!  So hot, you could fry an egg on the fender of a truck.  The Zambesi Valley at Gwebe, where the Kariba dam was being constructed in May of 1959,  was no place for sissies.   I was a gangly youth of 15 and my passion was , well, I didn't know what my passion was apart from the fact that I was happiest when I had a camera in my hand.  

A typicam African thunderstorm
My father, Denis, was a motion picture documentary and news cameraman working for Killarney Film Studios in Johannesburg.  Killarney had been commissioned by the then Federal Power Board of Rhodesia and Nyasaland (Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi today) to produce a documentary film of the construction of the Kariba hydro-electric dam on the Zambezi river.  Denis therefore travelled by road from Johannesburg to Kariba every month, and spent a week there.  I accompanied him in December 1959 as I was on school holidays.   It was the one and only time he allowed me to accompany him to Kariba.  Nevertheless, it was an experience that I shall never forget.

On this occasion, it was necessary to take along a big load of film gear and we therefore travelled in Killarney's beaten up Ford F300 one and a half ton truck.  It had a straight six three litre engine that was prone to overheating and a gearbox that made double-de-clutching mandatory.  The paintwork had once been a nice burgundy but was now a sun-bleached tomato sauce red.
The Kariba airstrip being flooded 

We spent the first night at a motel in Louis Trichardt and arose before dawn to make it to the Rhodesian border when the gates opened at 6 am.  The border officials didn't even glance at the truck and I never left my seat.  We travelled at 60 mph.  Any faster, and the temperature gauge would start to climb into the red.   There was plenty of road kill on the tarmac, and this attracted the vultures, one of which became road kill itself when it didn't gain enough altitude before being hit by the front of our truck.  

The dam wall nearing completion
We travelled via Salisbury (now Harare), where we stayed overnight at the Meikles Hotel.   North of Salisbury many of the roads were strip roads- two strips of tarmac with the centre and the verges heavily eroded away, leaving the tarmac strips high above the surrounding surface.  This could damage the sides of one's tyres as one had to pull off to allow oncoming traffic to pass.   We arrived at Kariba village at sunset on the third day.  Kariba Village was a township on a hilltop overlooking the dam construction site,  built to house the construction workers, most of whom came from Italy as the main contractor was an Italian company, Impresit S.p.A (now Impreglio) who imported most of their workers from Europe.   My father and I were allocated rooms in the "guest lodge" which offered the choice of sleeping either inside the room or outside on a verandah enclosed with fly-screening.  I chose the outside option as the ambient was around 30C.   A mistake, but more of that later.
The generator hall under construction

I was woken at dawn the following morning, and we drove to the staff canteen building for breakfast, which was served on stainless steel trays with cavities for the various portions, prison style.  I remember that there was a large container of electrolyte tablets at the door, from which every person was expected to take two and down them with a small paper cup of water, witnessed by a member of the medical staff.  This was to reduce the effect of de-hydration.  Outside the canteen, our truck was parked.  I had noticed that everyone carried a pair of rigger's gloves which were protection against burnt hands when handling metal tools which had been heated in the sun.  To demonstrate, Denis obtained an egg from the canteen kitchen and filmed it being fried on the fender of the truck.  This was at 9 o'clock in the morning!

The main electrical hall under construction
That day we hauled all of the film gear down into the cavernous underground turbine chambers and water tunnels.  It was very hot and humid down there, but I was rewarded by being allowed to get some very good stills shots of the construction in progress, once Denis had set his lighting up for the film work.   The chambers were like being in a cathedral, so vast were they.   I was using a Rolleiflex 6x6cm camera and an Exakta VX IIA 35mm camera fitted with Zeiss Jena lenses and an old Sachtler tripod.   The film I used was Kodak Tri-X roll film rated at 400 ASA or Kodak Double X 35mm motion picture stock rated at 320 ASA(ISO).   The results speak for themselves.

The access tunnel

That night, after a tiring and sweaty day on the construction site, and after a braai (BBQ) around a campfire and a spectacular sunset, we retired to bed in our guest accommodation.  I was lying reading on the bed out on the verandah.   The thing about fly-screen mesh, with which the verandah was enclosed, is that one can't see out when it is illuminated from the inside.   Whether it was Rupert winding me up or a real Baboon, I will never know, but all of a sudden there was the impression of two clawed paws  dragging down the outside of the fly-screen accompanied by the bark of a male baboon.  I levitated six feet straight up in the air and beat a hasty retreat into the bedroom, locking the glass doors behind me, where I stayed until dawn.   When I related my experience at breakfast, I was told that the baboons habitually raided the cabins for food and that they could probably smell the oranges that I had left on the table.  I wonder.....
The dam wall near completion

The construction of the dam wall in the Gwebe gorge of the Zambezi river flooded the Zambezi valley for 220 km upstream and flooded an area of 5,400 km2.  50,000 local Batonga people lost their ancestral lands and were moved elsewhere.  The dam claimed the lives of 87 workers during construction, including 18 who fell into the concrete and 4 who are still sealed within the dam wall.  Was it worth it?  
The Kariba Dam now supplies 1,319 MW of electricity to parts of both Zambia (the Copperbelt) and Zimbabwe and generates 6,400 GW·h (23 PJ) per annum.  Each country has its own power station on the north and south bank of the dam respectively. The south station belonging to Zimbabwe has been in operation since 1960 and has six generators of 125 MW capacity each for a total of 750 MW, and it was in the underground chambers being prepared for this installation that I was allowed to capture the images shown here.   (The north bank power station would not be completed until 1976 by the Zambian government.)    

Two rescued waterbuck

Perhaps one day Zimbabwe will be governed by a deserving, democratically elected  government and the people there will be able to prosper and benefit from the past efforts of people like Rupert Fothergill and his colleagues, before it is too late.  One day........

Click on any image to see it full size.

Graham Serretta

London December 2015

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