TOP STORIES Herd in Exile: Horse Riding in Mozambique's Bazaruto Archipelago

Herd in Exile: Horse Riding in Mozambique’s Bazaruto Archipelago


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With a map in one hand and a cold beer in the other, I sat alone at the bar. Baobab Beach Backpackers Lodge in the coastal town of Vilanculo, looking out over the wide sandbars and vibrant turquoise waters that surround Mozambique’s Bazaruto archipelago. I planned to leave the next morning for Zimbabwe and chatted with the bartender about the logistics of my trip. Then, suddenly, the car’s headlights illuminated the bar and I saw a familiar face heading towards me. I felt that my plans were about to change.

I met Mandy Retzlaff a few days earlier; she and her husband Pat, former Zimbabweans, are the founders mozambique horse safari, a family run horse safari company with whom I had the pleasure of riding in Vilanculo as a special gift for my birthday. My friend Alice and I drove about 200 miles from Tofo – a small coastal village famous for diving, snorkelling and whale shark sightings – to take a ride with the company after we heard about their extraordinary history and the great excursions they offered. .

On the morning of my birthday, Alice and I enjoyed an exhilarating drive at low tide along the palm-lined beach of Vilanculo. Pat was our guide, and his opening words – “We’ll have to drive fast to get to the red dune before the tide comes in” – were music to our ears.

Riding side by side on vigorous and exceptionally well-trained horses, we raced across the white sand, stopping to give the horses a rest before galloping up the steep red dune. From the top of the dune, a palette of bright blues stretched over the peeping sandbanks to the five islands of the Bazaruto archipelago. Traditional dhow boats adorned the seascape. We watched the fishermen pull their nets and the local women bring their catch to the shore.

A few days after our trip, while I was sitting at the bar, Mandy drove over to Baobab Lodge to ask if I would be willing to help run their equestrian program on nearby Benguerra Island for a few weeks due to an unexpected shortage of staff. Quickly abandoning my plans to travel to Zimbabwe, I found myself on a boat bound for an island paradise.

About eight miles from the mainland, Benguerra Island – the second largest island in the Bazaruto archipelago – is a snorkeling paradise known for its white sand beaches and luxury resorts. Although their main herd of over 40 horses is based in Vilanculo, Mozambique Horse Safari also maintains a six horse outpost on Benguerra where they cater to guests of exclusive resorts.

During the weeks I spent on the island of Benguerra, I got to know the horses under my care. Their stories are described in memoirs of mandyOne Hundred and Four Horses: A Memoir of Farm and Family, Africa and Exile, which tells the wonderful story of a farming family’s dedication to their animals, including their journey through Zimbabwe to Mozambique with 104 rescued horses.

In 2001, Mandy and Pat received a letter informing them that they would have to leave their farm in Zimbabwe; he no longer belonged to them. As part of then-President Robert Mugabe’s controversial land reform policy, the family was among those forced to leave their homes. Determined not to abandon their beloved animals and agreeing to take animals from other displaced farm owners, the Retzlafs moved from one place to another with an ever-growing herd, eventually reaching the Mozambican border.

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

After a long and arduous journey to Mozambique, the couple created riding gear to pay for the upkeep of their exiled flock. In 2006, Pat, who came from a long family of horse enthusiasts, traveled to Vilanculo with six horses and began organizing beach rides—horse safari was born.

The business took off when Cyclone Favio hit Vilanculo in February 2007, causing massive destruction and paralyzing tourism. Three years later, in 2010, half of Mandy and Pat’s herd died after eating Crotalaria plants, which are deadly to horses and grew in abundance near the lakes where they herded the animals. The pandemic has become another major hurdle.

Despite the difficulties, the Mozambique Horse Safari offers exciting adventures on horseback, attracting tourists and travelers who want to explore one of the most beautiful coastal regions in the world.

On Benguerra Island, I switched from tourist to guide and spent my days taking trips to the island’s pristine beaches, roaming its varied landscapes and waterways with guests from all over the world. In the evenings I took the horses out to sea to lie and swim at sunset, which 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 staging a few escapes on the mainland: he learned how to remove halters from other horses, Mandy explained, collected them and headed to Zimbabwe. “It got tiresome,” she added, “so he was sent to an island where he now rules the roost.”

I also became very fond of a sweet but temperamental mare named Princess, whom the Retzlafs rescued after a terrible wound from a bullet shot through her in the withers, the highest part of the horse’s back. “It took years to heal her,” Mandy said.

The devotion and affection of the Retzlaffs to their horses made a deep impression on me and became a source of inspiration. “Once you take on the responsibility of caring for animals, there is no going back,” Mandy told me. “They rely on you for everything. Our horses were saved – and in the end they saved us.”

“They provided food for the refugee family,” she added. “Every day is a happy day surrounded by my horses.”

Claire Thomas is a British photographer and photojournalist specializing in conflict, humanitarian and environmental crises and social issues. You can follow her work on Instagram as well as Twitter.

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