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, gazing out at the sweeping sandbars and vivid turquoise waters that surround Mozambique’s Bazaruto Archipelago. I’d planned to leave the following morning for Zimbabwe, and I was chatting with the bartender about the logistics of my trip. Then, suddenly, a car’s headlights lit up the bar, and I saw a familiar face heading toward me. I had a feeling my plans were about to change.
I’d met Mandy Retzlaff 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 company 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 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 sandbars toward the five islands of the Bazaruto Archipelago. Traditional dhow boats dotted the seascape. We watched as fishermen pulled in their nets and local women carried their catch ashore.
A few days after our ride, while I was seated at the bar, Mandy drove to the Baobab Lodge to ask if I’d be interested in helping run their horse program on nearby Benguerra Island for a few weeks because of an unexpected staff shortage. Promptly abandoning my plans to travel to Zimbabwe, I found myself on a boat 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 main herd of over 40 horses is based in Vilankulo, Mozambique Horse Safari also maintains an outpost of six horses on Benguerra, where they cater to the guests of the exclusive resorts.
During 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 Four 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 have to vacate their farm in Zimbabwe; it no longer belonged to them. As part of then-President Robert Mugabe’s controversial land reform policies, the family was among those forced to leave their homes. Determined not to abandon their beloved animals, and agreeing to take in animals from other displaced farm owners, the Retzlaffs moved from one place to the next with an ever-growing herd, eventually reaching the border of Mozambique.
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,” Mandy explained. “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 herd. In 2006, Pat, who comes from a long line of horse lovers, headed to Vilankulo with six of the horses and started organizing beach rides — and so the horse safari was born.
The business had started 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, 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.
Despite the challenges, Mozambique Horse Safari offers spectacular horseback riding adventures, attracting tourists and travelers who are eager to explore one 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 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: He learned how 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 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, the highest part of a horse’s back. “It took years to heal her,” Mandy said.
The Retzlaffs’ dedication and affection for their horses resonated deeply with me and is a source of inspiration. “When you take on the responsibility of caring for animals, there is no turning back,” Mandy told me. “They rely on you for everything. Our horses were saved — and, in the end, they saved us.”
“They provided a family of refugees with a living,” she added. “Every day is a happy 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 can follow her work on Instagram and Twitter,