Part of my work as production designer for an American film company was to scout for locations of their films. It was summer last year when I was sent to Malawi for a week to survey possible locations of a fictional movie about Southeast Africa. We were a team of 5 people from our production company who boarded a KLM flight in Los Angeles Airport via Johannesburg to get to Lilongwe International Airport in Lilongwe, Republic of Malawi. It’s a small country but offered many interesting sceneries to discover.
Our tour of Malawi began with a bus ride from Lilongwe to Blantyre to get to Mount Mulanje, the third largest mountain in Malawi. We started our one day hike with a visit to the Lujeri Tea Estate, where we bought some packs of tea. We hired porters and guides to carry our equipment for filming. Trekking was very hard and hot but we were rewarded with great views of Malawi on top. We shoot videos and pictures to document our work tour of a southeast African setting. Our local guide was knowledgeable about the trails, but when it started raining the climb became steeper and slippery. We kept going on amidst the thick mist of rain. The little huts on top of the mountain were impressive. We camped for a night at the Madzeka Hut and enjoyed a good meal and a hot bath as well. Nearby we saw a nursery of Mulanje Cedar trees which are tended by the forest watchmen. We passed by a waterfall as we descend to the town. We enjoyed our accommodation at the lovely Likubula Forest Lodge; it’s a cozy place at the foot of the mountain. A guide took us to the nearby Likhubula Pools for a refreshing night swim.
The next day was spent experiencing The Way of the Cross/Njia Ya Mtandao, a pilgrimage trail with a spiritually refreshing journey and a view of the natural scenery. We converged with other pilgrims at the St. James Parish Church in Chilomoni, the starting point. Inside we met our guide Mr. Cris Kteya and he explained to us every part of our climb, the story behind the 15 bronze plaques and his talks became more spiritual until we reach the cross. It’s amazing to be standing beside a 15 meter high cross that overlooks the town. We felt relieved of Malawi’s stunning views, gorgeous scenery, and peaceful surroundings.
After this we rented a Ford 4×4 to get to the Responsible Safari Company- Private Day Tours, it’s a half day tour of Lilongwe and Blantyre. It provides interaction with Malawian community, from the humid lakeside, rising landscapes, cool plateaus and forested mountains dotted with tea plantations. We saw Malawians living in villages with round houses of mud baked in the sun with roofs of sorghum thatch. The mother is the head of the household and is in charge of planting and harvesting cassava, sorghum and corn to feed their families. The men look after livestock, such as cattle and sheep, or go out hunting and fishing. On our way back we saw a large class of pupils enjoying an outdoor lesson under the shade of a big tree. I learned later on that more than half of all the children in Malawi attend school due to a shortage of teachers and school buildings.
The next day we visited the Lilongwe Wildlife Center, the only wildlife sanctuary in Malawi. It’s a beautiful well maintained area right in the heart of the city. It houses lots of animals like Bella the tigress and Kambuku the leopard. It has lots of wilderness trails to walk around. We had a good meal at a small bar inside and also bought some souvenirs at its gift shop. From across the lake stands the Parliament Building, we were not allowed to enter as parliamentary proceedings were ongoing during the time were there. I saw the exterior is poor and needs reconstruction. We took pictures beside the Lilongwe World War 1 Memorial Clock Tower; it’s a sign that early colonial settlers once ruled this island. From here we visited the Old Lilongwe Masjid, a large mosque with two minarets located in the intersection of Kamuzu Procession Road and the Malangala road inside the old town of Lilongwe. At night we shopped at the Lilongwe Market, it was full of African food and fresh fishes caught in Lake Malawi. We also bought distinct woodwork carvings and folk art quilted tapestries. The carvings were made of dark ebony wood (sometimes ivory). Each piece has a lovely finish and absolutely beautiful to own and admire. My staff bought exquisitely woven baskets handcrafted by the local Malawian women. Everything was reasonably priced and they barter well too.
Then we head next to the Lake Malawi National Park and had fun snorkeling at its reefs rich with hundred species of colorful tropical fishes. It has clear fresh waters and it’s a haven for boaters and fishing enthusiasts. It is considered a World Cultural Heritage Site and there is a corresponding entrance fee required to explore it. We rented a glass bottomed boat and took a short cruise along the lake; I was amused at the rainbow fishes swimming in the ocean floor as seen from the glass, amazing! Along the shores we saw fishermen setting off their canoes in Lake Malawi. The government promotes fishing to help make Malawians self-sufficient in food. Then we head off to the Thumbe Island, where our group experienced how to paddle a macaro (dug out canoe), and live among the local Malawian fishermen. The waters were mostly rocky but we did admire the lush vegetation that surrounds Lake Malawi. We also checked out the Cape Maclear Beach, located at the southwest part of this African peninsula. The waters are calm here compared to the other places around the lake; the long sandy beach is equally beautiful. There are resorts and bamboo huts located along the beach. I video local Malawian kids playing plank diving on the shores. We also took videos of women singing African chants while they wash clothes along the lake. They are genuinely musical people. At night we watched the locals gather around this beach for an impromptu cultural show, where women dance and sing with their husbands and kids. It was fun and we took lots of pictures of their nightly activity.
The next day we took time out to visit the Chembe AIDS Project. Found at the end of the dusty gravel road of Chembe, the cordial staff welcomed us and explained the goal of their project, she showed us around some patients to better understand what AIDS is. We donated some Kwacha (Malawi money) to support the work of this charitable organization. Then we head next to the Otter Point, along the path we saw explanations written on the boards about the animals that thrive in the area. We took more pictures as I deem this place is ideal to the storyboard of our next film project. The rocky outcrops showed rock rabbits, lizards and otters. We also went hiking in the steep forested hills of Nkhungguni Peak; the trail begins near the Missionary Graves. It took 40 minutes to reach the viewing point in the Chembe Village, but we felt relieved with a great view of Malawi. From here we did a circular trekking tour of the nearby Mawala Wa Mphini and take time for some picnic under the tree shades. We trekked down to get to the Monkey Bay in Chembe Road, to watch the sunset and the Chembe beach boys happily playing around the bay.
We had a good overview of our possible filming locations in Malawi, my boss was impressed when he saw how good its natural resources are and the warm hearted people we met along the way. We love Malawi that we can’t wait to go back and start filming there this summer. I miss the smiling faces of the people and their endless sense of adventure and fun. See you soon Malawians!