It is a magnificent sight which, by and large, outclasses other boats on the lake, in both size and design. It is a gigantic house boat, perhaps the only one of its kind to float on the waters of Zambia.
The house boat had a stint in Zimbabwe when that country’s economy was more vibrant.
The boat is arguably one of the largest houseboats in Southern Africa. It has been operating as a charter boat in Zimbabwe where it hosted various events-parties, weddings and Safari trips.
The boat also offered exquisite accommodation. It is for this reputation that it crossed the borders into Zambia after being bought by Protea Hotels.
Its size, although not anywhere near the Titanic, makes it the biggest and grandest boat on Zambian waters.
Its journey to Zambia a few weeks ago was characterised by celebrations as authorities from the two countries boarded it in a ceremonial manner.
The Zimbabwean authorities, who included immigration officers, ensured its safe passage into Zambia and were evidently overwhelmed, although this was a loss to their country’s tourism industry.
The Southern Belle is now docked for a short time to facilitate rehabilitation works. The renovation, which is supposed to be completed by August this year, will give the unique boat a major facelift.
“Renovations to the Southern Belle, which will take about five weeks, will include improving air conditioning and upgrading the plumbing system,” Protea Hotels chairman Mark O’Donnell said.
The boat was bought specifically to boost the tourism industry in Zambia. Buying and repairing the Southern Belle has cost Protea Hotels about K8 billion.
Protea intends to make the boat a desirable holiday and conference venue. Some facilities such as the check in centre are being finalised.
Some of the facilities the Southern Belle will be offering include accommodation. It boasts of 22 en-suite cabins, which will be air-conditioned, and two presidential suites.
It also has a conference room, sundry shop, bar and restaurant.
The boat will contain other facilities for game viewing for clients to the islands of Kota Kota and Chete, both on Lake Kariba.
“This initiative is the first of its kind. There will be many other facilities on board,” Mr O’Donnell said.
Apart from game viewing, clients may choose to do some fishing. The Southern Belle will always be accompanied by three speed boats on every errand.
Protea Hotels Zambia Group Revenue Manager Leah Corgel is optimistic that the Southern Belle venture will have a positive impact on Zambia’s tourism industry.
She said the purchase of the boat and its initial operations on Lake Kariba has raised a lot of excitement among potential clients.
Ms Corgel’s sentiments are shared by her colleague, Audrey Keane, who is in charge of sales and marketing at Protea Hotel Zambia.
More people are now inquiring about the boat and the facilities it will be offering.
“The response, both in Zambia and outside, is overwhelming. We have people asking us about the Southern Belle from as far as South Africa and I think this will be a success,” she said.
The name of the boat will be maintained for purposes of continuity and history.
Most of the works just need final touches, especially the rooms, conference room, dining room and upper decks to be used for special functions such as weddings.
The Southern Belle will also have a 1.3 metre deep swimming pool. As many as 200 people can occupy the boat for special functions.
A lot of recreational activities will be held on board the gigantic boat, especially on the way to the two islands of Kota Kota and Chete which are about 70 kilometres and 100 kilometres away, respectively.
The longer time the Southern Belle takes going to the islands, the more exciting the excursions will be.
Perhaps, one of the most significant contributions the boat will have, especially on locals, is employment creation. About 50 people will work in different sections after the launch of the boat.
Ms Corgel said Protea Hotels has a deliberate policy to employ locals wherever they put up some investment.
A local, Solomon Chundu who works at one of the lodges in Siavonga, said the Southern Belle will be very ideal for adventurous people who have been dying to have their special functions on water.
Currently, the boats in Siavonga just offer relatively shorter cruises, unlike the Belle which will go on marathon trips.
“Let it be operational so that people can experience what they have missed for a long time,” Mr O’Donnell said.
The boat will have energy efficient air conditioners and generators and a solar hot water system.
Mr O’Donnell said the general feeling is that this will be a ‘great asset and fantastic product’ not only to Protea Hotels but to Zambia as a whole. It will offer unforgettable trips.
It is envisaged that the Southern Belle will help raise the profile of Lake Kariba and Zambia as significant tourism destinations.
Lake Kariba boasts of one of the finest tiger fishing experiences and is an ideal base for exceptional game viewing in the area.
Game species include elephants and buffalo which have attracted a lot of tourists to the lake’s islands, usually when they cross the lake both to and from Zambia and Zimbabwe.
The Southern Belle is a marvel waiting to be exploited.