Equines in Exile: Riding Mozambique’s Bazaruto Archipelago

The horse riding business born out of an extraordinary rescue mission of 104 horses.

 

The New York Times – June 20, 2022

With a map in one hand and a cold beer in the other, I sat alone at the bar of the Baobab Beach Backpackers Lodge in the coastal town of Vilankulo, planning my onward journey to Zimbabwe for the following day. As the sun set over the sweeping sand bars and vivid turquoise waters that surround Mozambique’s Bazaruto Archipelago, I chatted with the bar tender about the logistics of my planned route to the Zimbabwean border by public transport for the following day. When, suddenly, a car’s headlights lit up the bar, I saw a familiar face heading towards me and I had a feeling my plans were about to change.

A few days earlier, I’d met Amanda (Mandy) Retzlaff, co-founder with her husband Patrick (Pat) of Mozambique Horse Safari, a family-run horseback safari company I’d had the pleasure of riding with in Vilankulo as a special treat for my birthday. My friend Alice and I had travelled over 300 kilometres from Tofo – a small coastal village well-known for its diving, snorkeling, and whaleshark sightings – to ride with Mozambique Horse Safaris after we’d heard about their extraordinary story and the magnificent excursions they offered.

On the morning of my birthday, Alice and I had enjoyed an exhilarating ride along the palm-tree lined Vilankulo beach at low tide on the ‘red dune ride’. Pat was our guide, and his introductory words – “We’ll have to ride fast to reach the red dune before the tide comes in” – were music to our ears. Riding side by side atop spirited and exceptionally well-trained horses, we thundered over the white sand, pausing to give the horses a break before cantering up the steep red dune. From the top of the dune, a palette of bright blue hues stretched over the peeping sand bars towards the five islands of the Bazaruto Archipelago. Traditional dhow boats dotted the seascape where fishermen pulled in their nets and local women carried their catch ashore.

A few days after our ride, while I was seated at the beach bar, Mandy drove to the Baobab Lodge to ask if I’d be interested in helping run their horse programme on nearby Benguerra island for a few weeks because of an unexpected staff shortage. All plans promptly abandoned, I found myself on a boat heading out to an island paradise.

Located 14km from the mainland and the second largest island of the Bazaruto Archipelago, Benguerra island is famous for its pristine beaches of white sand, luxury resorts, and scuba diving in the azure waters of the Indian Ocean. With their main herd of over 40 horses based in Vilankulo, Mozambique Horse Safaris also has an outpost of 6 horses based on Benguerra island, catering for the guests of its exclusive resorts.

During the weeks I spent on beautiful Benguerra island, I got to know the horses under my care, horses who have become the legends of Mandy’s memoir, ‘One Hundred and Four Horses: A Memoir of Farm and Family, Africa and Exile.’

In her book, Mandy tells the extraordinary story of a farming family’s devotion to their animals when faced with adversity, and their journey across Zimbabwe to Mozambique, with 104 rescued horses.

In 2001, Mandy and Pat Retzlaff received a letter informing them that they must vacate their farm in Zimbabwe, that it no longer belonged to them. As part of then-President Mugabe’s controversial land reform policy, the family were among those forced to leave their homes. Determined not to leave behind their beloved animals, the Retzlaffs moved from once place to the next with a growing herd of equines.

As more and more families fled Zimbabwe, Pat and Mandy were asked by other displaced farm owners to take in their animals, eventually reaching the border of Mozambique with a large herd of rescued horses. “We were kicked off our farm in 2001 but we were evicted at least five times before we ended up in Mutare near the Mozambique border,” says Mandy. “When families were evicted from their farm, it was the large animals that were left behind, horses being one of the most common. The tragedy of leaving beloved animals behind as you race for safety is heartbreaking and so evident on our screens as we see what’s currently happening in Ukraine.”

As evictions continued, it became increasingly difficult to keep their horses in Zimbabwe, so the Retzlaffs decided to cross the border into Mozambique. “As Mozambique was opening up after a civil war and people were looking to invest in the country, it seemed like a good idea to move the herd there and start a new life,” explains Mandy. “We had no idea of the difficulties we were going to face, but it seemed like freedom.”

After a long and challenging journey into Mozambique, the couple created a horse-riding outfit to help pay for the upkeep of their exiled equines. In 2006, Pat, who comes from a long line of horse lovers, headed to Vilankulo with six of the horses and started doing beach rides. Thus, the horse safari was born.

The business started to take off until Cyclone Favio hit Vilankulo in February 2007, causing widespread destruction and bringing tourism to a standstill. Three years later, in 2010, half of Mandy and Pat’s herd died after ingesting Crotalaria plants, which are deadly to horses and had grown in abundance near the lakes where they grazed the animals.

The pandemic has been another major setback for the business, once again bringing tourism to a halt. “Life with COVID has not been easy on anybody who is involved with tourism,” says Mandy. “We were fortunate that one of our riding guests donated quite a bit of money to pull as through. Her name is Isabel. A lot of people donated towards the horses, but Isabel donated the biggest amount. I really don’t think we would have survived if she hadn’t.”

Despite the challenges, Mozambique Horse Safari has become one of the world’s leading horseback riding adventures, attracting tourists and travelers like myself to explore one of the most beautiful coastal regions in the world from the back of a horse.

On Benguerra island, I shifted gears from tourist to trail guide, and spent my days leading rides along the island’s untouched beaches, wandering through its varied landscapes and waterways with guests from all over the world. In the evenings, I took the horses into the sea to wallow and swim as the sun set, something they seemed to enjoy as much as I did.

A horse named Tequila quickly became my favorite. A charming and mischievous character, he was sent to the island after orchestrating a few escapes on the mainland, eager to take his equine friends with him. “He learned how to get their halters off and would gather them up and head off back to Zimbabwe,” says Mandy. “It became tiresome, so he was dispatched to the island where he now rules the roost.”

I also became very fond of a sweet but temperamental mare called Princess who was rescued by the Retzlaffs after suffering a terrible injury from a bullet wound through her withers. “It took years to heal her,” says Mandy.

The Retzlaffs’ dedication and affection for their horses is something that really resonated with me and is a source of tremendous inspiration. “When you take on the responsibility of caring for animals, there is no turning back,” says Mandy. “They rely on you for everything. Our horses were saved, and, in the end, they saved us as Mozambique Horse Safari was born. They provided a family of refugees with a living. Every day is a happy day surrounded by my horses.”

When my time on Benguerra island ended, my journey continued overland to Zimbabwe and beyond, where I stood in awe of the mighty and mystical Victoria Falls, and photographed elephants snorkeling at sunset across the Chobe River in Botswana. But that, of course, is another story.

Horses are led along Vilankulo beach.

Riders climb a steep dune overlooking the sand bars that appear at low tide between the mainland and the islands of the Bazaruto Archipelago.

A view of the turquoise waters and sandbars that surround Benguerra Island from the back of a horse named Vumba. The horses wear fly masks to protect their eyes from flies and the sun, without affecting their vision.

Fishermen pull in their nets from the vivid turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean.

Fishermen pull in their nets and local women carry their catch ashore

Mozambique Horse Safari volunteer Karina rides a horse named Tequila while I ride a horse named Vumba along the beach on Benguerra island. Tequila is a horse with an especially big and endearing personality, and was brought to Benguerra island after several failed attempts to escape – taking his pals with him – and return home to Zimbabwe. He is now at the top of the pecking order of the Benguerra herd.

Storm clouds loom over Benguerra island.

Our journey to Vilankulo from Tofo, a quiet beach village and famous diving destination 300 kilometers south.

Equine friends Vumba and Tequila share a moment of affection during a ride on Benguerra island. The horses wear fly masks to protect their eyes from flies and the sun, without affecting their vision.

Riding a horse named Tequila along the shores of Benguerra island.

A small boat heads towards Magaruque island in the Bazaruto Archipelago.

The shores of Vilankulo, a gateway to the Bazaruto Archipelago.

A traditional English breakfast generously prepared by the staff at Baobab Beach Backpackers Lodge to celebrate my birthday.

The turquoise waters that lead from Vilankulo to the islands of the Bazaruto Archipelago in the Indian Ocean.

Mozambique Horse Safari volunteer Karina takes one of the horses into the sea at sunset on Benguerra island.

Tables are set for guests at Benguerra Lodge to enjoy a sunset dinner on the sandy beach of Benguerra Island.

A horse named Slash enjoys splashing around in the sea at sunset on Benguerra island.

A small boat is seen from a hilltop on Magaruque island, one of the islands of the Bazaruto Archipelago in Mozambique.

The turquoise waters that surround Magaruque island, the third largest island in the Bazaruto Archipelago.

The crew of a boat on a day trip from Vilankulo to Magaruque island in the Bazaruto Archipelago.

Sunset on Benguerra island.

Mozambique Horse Safari volunteer Karina rides a horse named Tequila along the white sands of Benguerra island.

The horses stand outside a luxury resort ready to pick up their riders.

Women walk out to a boat at low tide from Vilankulo.