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A Herd in Exile: Riding Horses on Mozambique’s Bazaruto Archipelago

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With a map in a single hand and a chilly beer in the opposite, I sat alone on the bar of the Baobab Beach Backpackers Lodge within the coastal town of Vilankulo, gazing out on the sweeping sandbars and vivid turquoise waters that surround Mozambique’s Bazaruto Archipelago. I’d planned to depart the next morning for Zimbabwe, and I used to be chatting with the bartender concerning the logistics of my trip. Then, suddenly, a automotive’s headlights lit up the bar, and I saw a well-known face heading toward me. I had a sense my plans were about to vary.

I’d met Mandy Retzlaff just a few days earlier; she and her husband, Pat, former residents of Zimbabwe, are the founders of Mozambique Horse Safari, a family-run horseback safari company that I’d had the pleasure of riding with in Vilankulo as a special treat for my birthday. My friend Alice and I had traveled some 200 miles from Tofo — a small coastal village well-known for its diving, snorkeling and whale shark sightings — for a ride with the corporate 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 at low tide along Vilankulo’s palm-tree lined beach. Pat was our guide, and his introductory words — “We’ll need to ride fast to succeed in the red dune before the tide is available 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 present the horses a break before cantering up the steep red dune. From the highest of the dune, a palette of vibrant blue hues stretched over the peeping sandbars toward the five islands of the Bazaruto Archipelago. Traditional dhow boats dotted the seascape. We watched as fishermen pulled of their nets and native women carried their catch ashore.

A couple of days after our ride, while I used to be seated on the bar, Mandy drove to the Baobab Lodge to ask if I’d be interested by helping run their horse program on nearby Benguerra Island for just a few weeks due to an unexpected staff shortage. Promptly abandoning my plans to travel to Zimbabwe, I discovered myself on a ship heading out to an island paradise.

About eight miles from the mainland, Benguerra Island — the second largest island of the Bazaruto Archipelago — is a scuba-diving haven that’s famous for its white-sand beaches and luxury resorts. Though their essential herd of over 40 horses is predicated in Vilankulo, Mozambique Horse Safari also maintains an outpost of six horses on Benguerra, where they cater to the guests of the exclusive resorts.

Through the weeks I spent on Benguerra Island, I got to know the horses under my care. Their histories have been chronicled in Mandy’s memoir, “One Hundred and 4 Horses: A Memoir of Farm and Family, Africa and Exile,” which tells the remarkable story of a farming family’s devotion to their animals — including their journey across Zimbabwe to Mozambique, with 104 rescued horses.

In 2001, Mandy and Pat received a letter informing them that they’d need to vacate their farm in Zimbabwe; it now not belonged to them. As a part of then-President Robert Mugabe’s controversial land reform policies, the family was amongst those forced to depart their homes. Determined not to desert their beloved animals, and agreeing to absorb animals from other displaced farm owners, the Retzlaffs moved from one place to the following with an ever-growing herd, eventually reaching the border of Mozambique.

As evictions continued, it became increasingly difficult to maintain their horses in Zimbabwe, so the Retzlaffs decided to cross the border into Mozambique. “As Mozambique was opening up after a civil war and folks were looking to take a position within the country, it gave the look of idea to maneuver the herd there and begin a recent life,” Mandy explained. “We had no idea of the difficulties we were going to face, however it gave the look of freedom.”

After a protracted and difficult journey into Mozambique, the couple created a horse-riding outfit to assist pay for the maintenance of their exiled herd. In 2006, Pat, who comes from a protracted line of horse lovers, headed to Vilankulo with six of the horses and commenced organizing beach rides — and so the horse safari was born.

The business had began to take off when 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, that are deadly to horses and had grown in abundance near the lakes where they grazed the animals. The pandemic has been one other major setback.

Despite the challenges, Mozambique Horse Safari offers spectacular horseback riding adventures, attracting tourists and travelers who’re desirous to explore one in every of the world’s most beautiful coastal regions.

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 around the world. Within the evenings, I took the horses into the ocean to wallow and swim because the sun set, something they appeared to enjoy as much as I did.

A horse named Tequila quickly became my favorite. A captivating and mischievous character, he was sent to the island after orchestrating just a few escapes on the mainland: He learned easy methods to remove the halters from other horses, Mandy explained, and would gather them up and head toward Zimbabwe. “It became tiresome,” she added, “so he was dispatched to the island where he now rules the roost.”

I also became very keen on 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, the best a part of a horse’s back. “It took years to heal her,” Mandy said.

The Retzlaffs’ dedication and affection for his or her horses resonated deeply with me and is a source of inspiration. “Once you tackle the responsibility of caring for animals, there is no such thing as a turning back,” Mandy told me. “They depend on you for every part. Our horses were saved — and, in the long run, they saved us.”

“They provided a family of refugees with a living,” she added. “Day-after-day is a comfortable day surrounded by my horses.”

Claire Thomas is a British photographer and photojournalist who focuses on conflict, humanitarian and environmental crises and social issues. You may follow her work on Instagram and Twitter.

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