Chongoni Rock Art Area

Chongoni Rock Art Area

Chongoni Rock Art Area is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2006, and situated within a cluster of forested granite hills and covering an area of 126.4km² (48.8 sq miles), northwest of Dedza for about 25km.

The Rock Art is one of Malawi’s most neglected national treasures, containing 127 rock art sites feature the most concentrated cluster of rock art found in Central Africa.

Of all the 127 sites, only three are open to public – Chentcherere, Namzeze, and Mphunzi.

All the sites are being maintained by the Antiquities Section of the Malawi Department of Culture.

These rock paintings can be divided into two distinct schools.

One has distinctive geometric diagrams and patterns that have been made using red oxide pigments.

These paintings could be some 3,500 years old and are thought to have been drawn by BaTwa (Akafula), hunter-gatherers who inhabited the area before the Bantu migrants.

In some cases, they also depict mythical animals and human beings.

The second or the modern school comprises white paintings.

These paintings were drawn by Chewa people, and usually feature animals or mythical animal-like figures, spirits and gods in animal form.

Besides, there are several paintings of reptiles and legendary creatures.

The white paintings are relatively recent considering there is one that actually depicts a car.

An interesting fact about these paintings is that a high proportion are known to have been made by women, and many of the zoomorphic paintings are secret symbols linked to female initiation ceremonies.

Despite the differences in their style, the paintings represent a sense of continuum in the arts.

One reason for this is that the Chewa lived alongside the Akafula until the middle of 19th century and openly admit to having learned their rainmaking traditions from the skilful hunter-gatherers who they eventually displaced entirely.

The sites remain important to local culture and rituals and dances are still performed there.

The Chewa girls’ initiation ceremony – Chinamwali, also continues to be practised (mostly in secret) in some of the painted shelters containing older Chinamwali rock art.

Rock paintings aside, this is a very scenic part of Malawi, studded with dozens of massive granite inselbergs, and ideal for casual rambling.

The forest reserve supports a mixture of plantation forest and Brachystegia woodland, as well as small patches of evergreen forest on some of the hills. Baboon, vervet monkey, rock hyrax, grey duiker and klipspringer are quite common, leopard and samango monkey are present in the evergreen forest, and the varied avifauna includes a similar range of Brachystegia-associated species as Dzalanyama, as well as limited selection of forest species.

Getting there and away

There are two main routes to Chongoni Forest Reserve.

Coming from Dedza, the most straightforward option is the dirt road past Dedza Pottery towards Linthipe trading centre.

The signposted turn-off to the Forestry College is about 10km past Dedza Pottery, and it’s another 1.5km to the resthouse.

For motorists coming from Lilongwe, the most direct approach to Chongoni is from the M1, following a dirt road 9km northwest of Dedza.

It’s 5.5km from the junction to the resthouse.

Chentcherere National Monument stands on the left side of the Linthipe road another 4km north of the junction for the Forestry College.

Namzeze is almost impossible to find without a guide; the junction from the Linthipe road is about 2km north of the Chentcherere and from there it’s another 30-minute drive and a 15-minute walk to the unsignposted shelter.

There is no public transport on any of these roads (apart from the M1).

Mphunzi falls outside the forest reserve, about 8km southwest of the M1.

It can be reached directly from Dedza by following the M1 towards Lilongwe for 13km, then taking an unsignposted dirt road to the left.

The junction is easy enough to locate next to minibus stage 4.3km northwest of the turn-off to Chongoni Forestry College and 500m past ‘Linthipe 3 Bridge’ (the first bridge you’ll cross coming from Dedza).

Follow the dirt road for 5.8km, with Mphunzi Mountain and its quartet of granite domes clearly visible ahead, until you reach a T-junction, where you need to turn left. After 600m, turn right into Mphunzi trading centre at the signpost for Mphunzi Secondary School, then after another 400m take the fork to the right.

It’s 500m from here to the old mission church and another 800m to the small Mphunzi Hospital at the eastern base of the mountain, where a faded metal signboard has a diagrammatic map of the mountain and rock-art sites.

The dirt road to Mphunzi is usually in fair shape and most vehicles will get through without a problem.

There is no formal public transport to the trading centre, but you could walk there from the M1 in under 2 hours, or pick up a bicycle-taxi at the junction.

Alternatively, the occasional matola vehicle runs from the junction on the M1 to the trading centre, which is only 15 minutes’ walk from the eastern base of the mountain.

Another option is to arrange a car and driver from Dedza Town, either through Dedza Pottery or Panjira Lodge.