Chongoni Rock Art Area is located on the southern Africa plateau about 80 km south-east of Lilongwe near the town of Dedza. It is an area of forested hills with numerous granite outcrops and kopjes, protected as Forest Reserves. Within the hills, 127 rock shelters have been used for rock art, creating the richest concentration of such art in central Africa. Unusually, it is the work of farming communities, and part of a still-thriving tradition.
Most of the paintings were made during the past 1,000 years, following the migration of Chewa agriculturalists to the area. They introduced painting with white clay, where the previous inhabitants, Batwa hunter-gatherers, had a tradition of painting in red. Their images are particularly associated with women’s initiation, rain-making and funerary rites, traditions that persist in Chewa society to this day. In recent decades, the symbolism of the rock art has served an important role in a Chewa secret society, Nyau.
First off, Malawi is well deserving of its reputation as “the warm heart of Africa,” with welcoming, friendly people and some beautiful scenery. (I did see another piece of unofficial but edgier tourist literature that touted Malawi as “more than Madonna’s children.”)
However, Malawi’s location surrounded on three sites by Mozambique places it off the usual safari, African tourist track. It’s not difficult to get to, just off the beaten path, so you have to make Malawi a destination and want to visit. This world heritage site is in the same category–not hard to get to but it does take some specific effort (and patience).
You can visit two of the three Chongoni rock art area sites that are open to the public (i.e., accessible without unsafe hiking into the bush, for several hours with a guide, if you can find one able to take on the task) in August 2014, from Dedza, a busy transport center in the (thankfully) cool highlands. Dedza is easy to reach by bus or car from either of the big cities in Malawi, Lilongwe or Blantyre.