A rocky journey in the heart of Malawi

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‘Prehistoric art of world-class standards, from the stone age and iron age, etched in granite rocks and now a World Heritage Site’. Sounds good, no?” Lawrence nodded his head at me, looking up from his sweet, milky tea to see how keen I was to discover these ancient artistic artefacts, and going along with my enthusiasm whilst biting down into a piece of bread and butter, our new favourite Malawian delicacy in the mountain town of Dedza. To call it a ‘town’ was to stretch the meaning of the word, but there was at least a bus station, and one place to get a decently filling breakfast.

According to the guidebook the best way to get there was by taxi, but having failed to find a single one around the town we went in search of the ubiquitous bicycle taxis which were dotted around the central stretch, by the bus stop, with their drivers leaning on their handlebars and chatting away in Chichewa. When we approached they assumed Lawrence spoke the same language as them and answered in Chichewa, only to be shot down when he carried on in English:

“Sorry, I’m Kenyan, I don’t speak Chichewa. Can you take us to Chongoni?” The small gaggle of men, each with their bikes, haggled for our business, but no one would go below a certain fee, which we assumed was really the minimum, so we chose two men who seemed particularly good at vying for business, and settled on a price a little higher than we’d managed to get it down to.

As we went off to buy bananas, bread and other snacks for the road, we left the two men to decide on the best route, and to prepare their bikes for the journey ahead, or so we thought. We climbed onto the small, lightly cushioned platform behind each saddle and perched our feet on the little spokes on the wheel built for the purpose, added onto the cheap Chinese bicycle frames which were never beyond repair.

The beginning of the journey was a flat, open stretch of road, the one leading northwards up the elongated lakeside country, We trundled along at a reasonable pace, Lawrence in front with the younger of the two bicycle taxi drivers, and me behind with the slightly older, leaner one, wearing rubber boots in the sweltering heat, for a reason I hadn’t yet ascertained.

It was about four minutes before the terrain became too hilly and rough to stay on the bikes, so we all got off and walked. At this early stage in the journey there were a few children walking along with goats, women with children on their backs looking at us from the corners of their eyes, wondering what we were planning on doing down this narrow dirt road leading to small community after even smaller community, framed by the rocky promontories and grassy expanses of central Malawi.

Lawrence and I discussed, as we normally did, the ups and downs of life, the future, funny stories from our respective childhoods and shared any knowledge we each had about nature, history and politics. The bicycle drivers, whose names we never found out, were becoming more and more sweaty and silent, despite no longer being able to ride their bikes, and instead pushing them in front of them, avoiding punctures and potential falls.

Lawrence and I looked at each other and I pointed to the bikes with my eyes and curled the side of my mouth up a little bit, and he assented, knowing it was futile to resist my idea.

“How about we take the bikes for a bit, and give you two a break?” I offered, raising the pitch of my voice to a slightly pathetic girly whine. Though at first a little reticent to let go of their livelihoods for even a short ride, they gave in, realising how welcome the break would be, to walk unburdened and standing up straight even just for a few metres.

We took our respective bikes and pedalled along for a bit, the earth sliding away beneath us in a refreshing change from the jolting, uneven steps we’d been taking for the past 3 kilometres.

Once the ground began to rise in front of us my feet pressed more intently down on the pedals to press forward up the hill, and I felt a sharp cutting on the soles of my feet, as if the force of my weight were fighting against me in pointed retaliation. Looking back at the original driver, I realised now why he was wearing thick-soled, knee-high boots. The pedals were just thin metal bars, and after only a few metres my feet were in agony, the thin soles of my flip-flops offering no protection.

We returned the vehicles to their owners and continued on our way.

“How much further to the rock art?” Lawrence dared to ask, knowing that the answer probably wouldn’t be to our liking. It was already midday, and the day was evaporating fast, the sun reaching its highest point and stubbornly making it obvious that it wouldn’t stick around all day.

“To the turn in the road, maybe 5km. Then we’re not sure how to get to Chongoni. We’ll ask”. At this point we had seen no one on the road for the past kilometre or so, and we weren’t likely to see many. Asking for directions from a local would be like trying to talk to a deceased relative one last time to check they didn’t blame you for that terrible argument just before their passing; impossible, unless you believed in miracles.

We resigned ourselves to a difficult journey, and were relieved when a flat expanse of road unfurled in front of us, and our drivers signalled to us to board the bikes again. It didn’t last as long as we’d hoped, but our drivers decided to hazard a go at the downhill stretch which then in front of us, with the brakes lightly pressed to control speed. Lawrence’s extra 20cm of height compared to me, and his physical bulk meant the bike he was being pulled by careered in front of us, unable to make such efficient use of the brakes faced with the substantial weight of a tall, healthy man perched on its back wheel. The taxi driver was unable to control the movement as he almost caught his wheel in ours, overtaking us at an awkward angle, veering to the side whilst gaining speed, and crashing into the dusty slope of the road in an inevitable tangle of man, machine and twisted metal.

No one was hurt, thankfully, except for the bike, which anthropomorphised in front of our eyes into a wounded soldier, having lost the battle, and unable to keep charging forward and with very little hope of ever returning to the fight.

There was little option for us but to accept that driver number one had to return to Dedza town and see to his bike. We were then left to coordinate the logistics of getting three people back and forth from the Chongoni World Heritage site with one bike, and with dark storm clouds looming overhead. We agreed to organise ourselves like a courier service, delivering each one of us in turn to our destination (which we still weren’t sure the remaining driver had any geographical awareness of).

I was dropped, alone, by a fork in the road which we guessed was walking distance to the art we were trying to get to. I carried on walking, slowly, until the rain started. And when it started, it gained such force that I thought the hills would turn into puddles and the rock art would be wiped out forever, making our journey a wasted one, a prospect which I couldn’t bear to fathom.

I stood cowering under a rickety wooden structure where two small children and their 20 or so goats also realised they could avoid the worst of the deluge. Almost an hour later, two cowering men, all their machismo and pride stripped away by the pelting rain, trudged up to the shelter, the one in front holding my camera under his arm, wrapped in his t shirt, and the other bent forward, pushing a bike through the red mud.

We were stuck in an unknown location, with no road signs or map, no one who could speak any English, and a steadily growing group of small children who were staring at us from every corner of the wooden structure.

It was as good a time as any to polish off our banana sandwiches and jar of peanut butter, which ended up being split 10 ways, between the bicycle man, the two of us and the children who snatched it from our hands as we held it out, and then fought violently over each crumb. Soon, we were on our own again, the crowd dispelled and the bicycle driver insisting that we would find a different way back.

It was time to find the art we’d come in search of, and connect to the living memory of the agricultural communities of ancient Malawi. After a lengthy walk in a random direction we found a single, rusty, barely decipherable sign, confirming that we were indeed in the middle of a UNESCO World heritage site.

However, no matter how intently we searched and how many rocks we pored over, our hair still dripping rainwater onto the ground, Lawrence’s jeans still weighing more than the legs they surrounded, we saw nothing but natural formations. No art, no scribbles, not even a modern ‘Chris woz ‘ere’ for us to set eyes on.

This World Heritage site, with no budget to welcome visitors in style or signpost the site which was sold in the guidebook as a fascinating place of discovery, had stumbled upon the best way to protect its artefacts: make them undiscoverable, so that no one can attempt to corrupt or damage them.

As Lawrence and I rode back to Dedza on the back of a potato truck, clinging to mounds of rough, filed sacks as the bumpy road and bends tried to fling us off, we’d rarely been happier after a day spent exploring. We’d seen nothing of the history we’d set out to discover but we’d made our own little personal (hi)story in the hills of Malawi, and we lay back on our potato beds and enjoyed the ride.

Fancy trying to visit Chongoni yourself?

The Chongoni rock art UNESCO World Heritage site is within driving distance of Dedza, in Malawi, a few miles from the border with Mozambique. The best way to get around is by private car, as the site is around 12km from the edge of the town. You can rent vehicles from Lilongwe, or use your own if you’re on a road trip.

There are plenty of guesthouses in Dedza, with no need to book, and one or two eateries. The pottery centre is also well worth a visit, to see how they cook and glaze items which they sell on site and supply to national distributors. You can browse the pottery items afterwards or make the most of the manicured gardens and restaurant.

Claire Baker

Claire Baker is an international nomad who has lived in East Africa, Europe, Latin America and... wherever the travel angels will send her.

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