Wildlife & Wild Places

Incredibly Rare Tornado Sighting Over Lake Kariba

Lake Kariba tornado
The system starts to form out of the storm clouds in the distance. Photo by Roger de la Harpe, Matusadona

It was late afternoon on Lake Kariba, when the thunderclouds started forming like ominous grey monsters on the horizon.

We were relaxing on the Matusadona safari cruiser, photographing a fish eagle perched on a dead stump, with the amazing colours of the bird glowing in the soft afternoon light over Matusadona National Park in Zimbabwe. Beyond the fish eagle, the storm grew darker and we could see the rain coming down over the lake in torrents.

Suddenly, what seemed like a large tornado began to form at the base of the clouds, growing bigger and bigger as it reached the water. Roger de la Harpe was lucky enough to capture this sighting with amazing skill, the regal fish eagle providing the context and foreground of this rare African phenomenon.

Lake Kariba tornado

The regals fish eagle posing in front of the distant tornado. Photo by Roger de la Harpe, Matusadona
Lake Kariba tornado
The system growing in size. Photo by Roger de la Harpe, Matusadona

Kariba is one of the largest dams in the world, causing huge amounts of precipitation, and so commands its own unique climate – this could account for the amazing scale of the storm and the eventual forming of this rare system.

Any other sightings or expert accounts of tornadoes in the area are welcome in the comments section.

Update: After some helpful comments and further investigation, it has been ascertained that this is a water spout – otherwise referred to as a non-supercell tornado. It’s a similar phenomenon to cyclones and tornados but generally found over water rather than land. They are still considered dangerous and pose a threat to swimmers and small water craft.

Lake Kariba tornado
The storm system starts to disappear. Photo by Roger de la Harpe, Matusadona
Paul Steyn is a widely-published multi-media content producer from South Africa, and regular contributor to National Geographic News and blogs. Having guided throughout Africa for some years, he went on to edit a prominent travel magazine, and now provides digital content and expertise to various African lodges, NGO's and travel companies.In 2013, he joined a team of researchers and Bayei on a 250km transect of the Okavango Delta on traditional mokoros and blogged about the journey. In 2016, he accompanied the Great Elephant Census team in Tanzania and broke the groundbreaking results on National Geographic News .Contact: paul@paulsteyn.com Follow Paul on Twitter or Instagram
  • Angela Wigmore

    This is not a tornedo – it is a water-spout and they are not particularly uncommon on Kariba. Nice pictures though.

  • Angela Wigmore

    This is not a tornedo – it is a water-spout and they are not particularly uncommon on Kariba. Nice pictures though.

  • jayde clack

    I have also witnessed a similar formation over kariba by matusadona in 2005. Subsequently I researched it and discovered that it is in fact a “water spout” and is more common than I thought.

  • jayde clack

    I have also witnessed a similar formation over kariba by matusadona in 2005. Subsequently I researched it and discovered that it is in fact a “water spout” and is more common than I thought.

  • Russell Taylor

    During 14 years I lived and worked in Matusadona National Park waterspouts were not uncommon phenomena during wet seasons. Very good photos, thanks!

  • Russell Taylor

    During 14 years I lived and worked in Matusadona National Park waterspouts were not uncommon phenomena during wet seasons. Very good photos, thanks!

  • Steve Schafer

    Even more amazing is that I know two of the 4 people listed here from the Television industry – Roger and Angela!
    I had no idea you two spent time at Lake Kariba…

  • Steve Schafer

    Even more amazing is that I know two of the 4 people listed here from the Television industry – Roger and Angela!
    I had no idea you two spent time at Lake Kariba…

  • George Horton

    Over a 8 year period at Cahorra Bassa I witnessed this phenomena on 3 occasions. Sorry, 2 occasions because one occurrence was at night so just experienced its power, as it traveled in a north easterly easterly direction along the lake. Its trail could be followed by a destructive line which smashed into our kapenta sheds taking the roof, asbestos sheeting and its steel and dropping it 4 kilometers away. Huge mopani trees were snapped like match sticks. (ON this occasion one of the cyclones was moving down the Mozambique channel). In the afternoon prior to this visitation the labor had cone to me and told me to look up at a CD in the sky. This describes what we saw, a ‘flattish’ spiral with colors radiating out from the center. The CD indicated turbulence or instability in the atmosphere at about 9,000m, 3 hours later the camp was hit by the phenomena. On the two other occasions I saw these funnels come down at a distance, sometimes they would stop half way down and bounce back up then down again to touch the water or earth. It was no time to stay on the water and was able to navigate away into a place of shelter until the storm had passed (during the day) unfortunately I have no images.

    • Paul Steyn

      Fascinating. Thanks very much for the story George.

    • Paul Steyn

      Fascinating. Thanks very much for the story George.

  • George Horton

    Over a 8 year period at Cahorra Bassa I witnessed this phenomena on 3 occasions. Sorry, 2 occasions because one occurrence was at night so just experienced its power, as it traveled in a north easterly easterly direction along the lake. Its trail could be followed by a destructive line which smashed into our kapenta sheds taking the roof, asbestos sheeting and its steel and dropping it 4 kilometers away. Huge mopani trees were snapped like match sticks. (ON this occasion one of the cyclones was moving down the Mozambique channel). In the afternoon prior to this visitation the labor had cone to me and told me to look up at a CD in the sky. This describes what we saw, a ‘flattish’ spiral with colors radiating out from the center. The CD indicated turbulence or instability in the atmosphere at about 9,000m, 3 hours later the camp was hit by the phenomena. On the two other occasions I saw these funnels come down at a distance, sometimes they would stop half way down and bounce back up then down again to touch the water or earth. It was no time to stay on the water and was able to navigate away into a place of shelter until the storm had passed (during the day) unfortunately I have no images.

  • Rex Taylor

    I operated a Sailing Flotilla on The Lake. In early 2000’s, while moored on an island off Bumi Hills, we saw a water spout enter our bay and pass within 400m of the fleet. It picked up water by “the 200 litre drum full”, but at 400 m we were little affecte, although awed by the noise!. Within 200m of making landfall near ourselves, it ran out of power and seemingly dissolved! Across The Lake we watched three spouts form from the cloud layer in the next two hours.

  • Rex Taylor

    I operated a Sailing Flotilla on The Lake. In early 2000’s, while moored on an island off Bumi Hills, we saw a water spout enter our bay and pass within 400m of the fleet. It picked up water by “the 200 litre drum full”, but at 400 m we were little affecte, although awed by the noise!. Within 200m of making landfall near ourselves, it ran out of power and seemingly dissolved! Across The Lake we watched three spouts form from the cloud layer in the next two hours.

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