Equines in Exile: Riding Mozambique’s Bazaruto Archipelago

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


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 sand bars and vivid turquoise waters that surround the Bazaruto Archipelago, I chatted with the bar tender about the logistics of travelling to the Zimbabwean border. When 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 Mandy Retzlaff from Mozambique Horse Safaris, a horse-riding company I had the pleasure of riding with in Vilankulo on my birthday. Knowing my background and fondness for horses, Mandy had come to ask if I’d be interested in helping run their horse programme on nearby Benguerra island for a few weeks due to an unexpected staff shortage. All plans promptly abandoned, I found myself on a boat heading out to an island paradise.

The second largest island of the Bazaruto Archipelago, located 14km from the mainland, Benguerra island is famous for its pristine beaches of white sand, luxury resorts, and scuba diving in the azure seas of the Indian Ocean. With their main herd based in Vilankulo, Mozambique Horse Safari has a smaller outfit of a few horses based on the island for 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 stars of Mandy’s memoir, 104 horses. The book tells the extraordinary story of a farming family’s devotion to their animals when faced with adversity, and their epic journey out of Zimbabwe into Mozambique… with 104 rescued horses.

In 2002, Mandy and Pat Retzlaff received a letter informing them that they must vacate their farm, that it no longer belonged to them. As part of then-President Mugabe’s controversial land reform programme, the family were forced to leave their farm and home. Determined not to leave behind their beloved horses and other animals – and those of their neighbors – the Retzlaffs travelled across Zimbabwe to Mozambique with a string of 104 horses. Soon after reaching the safety of Mozambique, the couple created a horse riding outfit to help pay for the upkeep of their exiled equines, offering riding lessons and beach rides.

It has since become one of the world’s leading beach riding adventures, set along the palm-tree lined shores of the coastal town of Vilankulo, overlooking the sand bars and vivid blue hues of the Bazaruto Archipelago National Park.

Horses are led along Vilankulo beach.

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

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

Storm clouds loom over Benguerra island.

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.

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 face guards 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.

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

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.