Pristine dune-fringed beaches and crystalline aqua-marine waters housing shoals of colourful fish and coral embellished reefs consume the entire length of Mozambique’s 2,500kms coastline. A tangible Garden of Eden, this enigmatic African country still remains isolated from most travellers’ maps despite its obvious charms. Mozambique gained her independence from Portugal in 1975, but a turbulent recent history has ensured the country firmly remains listed amongst the ten poorest countries in the world. Although the 16-year civil war that blazed throughout the country ended in 1992, it was only in 2015 that Mozambique freed itself from the legacy of that war, declaring her lands to be finally free from landmines, finally free from the clutches of a tempestuous past and finally free to move towards a brighter future.
Despite its proximity not only in distance but also in ecology and cultural diversity to my beloved Madagascar, I must admit that Mozambique was not a country that I felt I had to visit, for some reason it’s mystic and intrigue had never fully captivated me, that was until I stumbled across a book entitled “One Hundred and Four Horses” by Mandy Retzlaff and my interest was instantly piqued. In the midst of Mugabe’s brutal policy of white-owned farm invasions in neighbouring Zimbabwe an epic tale of strength and resilience was born as The Retzlaff’s were forced to flee their home in order to save their lives. Such was their love and connection to their beloved horses that they could not face leaving them behind to a certain merciless death and thus began their arduous journey to freedom saving not only their own horses but also those of friends and neighbours, a total of 104. From the burnt ashes of war and loss a phoenix arose in the guise of Mozambique Horse Safari situated in Vilanculos along Mozambique’s Southern Tourist circuit and the gateway to the Bazaruto Archipelago.
The aspect of horse-riding holidays that I enjoy the most is of course that bond between horse and rider, a bond that’s built on trust, understanding and most of all respect. I have covered countless kilometres in the saddle, over some of the harshest, inhospitable and barren environments. I’ve climbed mountain ranges, waded through rivers and seas, galloped across great expanses of wide-open spaces in far-away magical places. None of this would have been possible without the trust and companionship of my four-legged friends and it never ceases to amaze me how far a horse will go for you once you have gained his trust. Imagine leading a herd of 104 horses under the cover of darkness through a treacherous war-torn country. The implicit trust those horses have placed in your hands is monumental, to follow you despite every fibre of their very being screaming to run and flee from danger as evolution has thought them to do. Imagine risking your life to save those of your horses, a selfless act, a feat of true horsemanship that had me completely enthralled. I was captivated by this awe-inspiring story, a desperate need to visit Mozambique had arose within me, I had to meet The Retzlaff’s and their amazing horse’s and finally the opportunity had arisen.
Jet-lagged and tired after a long journey from Ireland I finally arrived to my destination. The mid-afternoon sun was vengeful and intense, a blazing ball of fire soaring gloriously amidst a cloudless sky. As I stepped through the ornate wooden doors of Vila de Sonhos, I truly felt like I had stepped into a life of opulence and grandeur. The majority of my horse adventures are very rustic, progressive riding where we make new camp every day, not many luxuries and certainly no hot water (mostly cold streams!!). To be stationary in such luxurious surrounds was definitely a step outside my comfort zone, but to truly be adventurous one must constantly push outside their boundaries. I drifted slowly through my new surroundings from dining room to living room to verandah enjoying the sensation of cold tiles soothing my weary feet in a chilly embrace. Climbing the stairs towards my bedroom I took a moment to stand on the wooden balcony. Gazing out across the turquoise blue ocean I was hypnotised by the ebb and flow of gentle waves shimmering and twinkling beneath the golden caress of the afternoon sun. Luscious, verdant palm trees swayed softly beneath the tender touch of a whispered breeze; their delicate shadows danced playfully across the villa’s emerald lawn. I had to pinch myself to ensure that I was not dreaming, that I had not conjured this idyllic scenario in my mind’s eye through an exhausted haze of jet-lag. I could hear the rhythmic crash of waves, I could smell the heady aroma of sun, sea and sand and I could feel the soft breath of warm breeze teasing my hair……I truly had arrived to Paradise.
Vilankulo is indeed renowned for its incredible variety of pristine white sand beaches, akin to those depicted in holiday brochures, ones that you assume are too perfect to exist, but I promise you, they do exist in all their natural unspoilt beauty on the Mozambiquan Coast. During my seven day stay we floated across the golden sands on our majestic steeds, deserted and desolate, no sign of life only the trail of hoof prints we left in our wake, the gentle breeze filling in the slight imperfections we left on the sand, covering our tracks as if we floated on air, maintaining the perception of an untouched paradise. We enjoyed long, exhilarating canters along the shore line, waves lapping gently at our horse’s hooves, colourful dhows, sails billowing in the breeze created a picturesque backdrop as they floated atop pristine waters. On occasion our perfect horizon was dotted with fishermen hauling their precious days cargo along the beach, children and women eagerly awaiting their return from sea. Other times we spied a string of ladies, heads piled high with mountains of grass cut fresh for the horses as they strode regally towards the stables. Some days we tore ourselves away from the mesmerizing ocean and found ourselves venturing inland. Meandering through a sea of mangroves we entered a local Fishing village where we were entertained by music and dancing from the local children, bright eyed and smiling, emerging en masse from their thatched roofed rondavels.
Each day was filled with magical moments, but I of course had my favourite rides. Located 14kms from the mainland is the utopia that is Benguerra Island. Declared a National Park in 1971, the island is home to approximately 140 bird species and a diverse range of eco-systems within its 55 square kilometre size. Our journey started early as we sailed across the wide expanse of turquoise ocean, waves lapping gently at the motorised dhows sides as we navigated the rise and fall of the frequent waves and swells, the rhythmic motion lulling me into a deep state of relaxation, the cool refreshing slap of frequent icy splashes offering a welcome reprieve from the ferocious sun. After 90 minutes we arrived to our destination, a shimmering beach of white sand where we would meet our horses once we had refreshed our sea fearing bodies in the cool shady confines of a beautiful beachside villa. I spied our horses on the horizon, a glimmering mirage skimming across the sands, majestic steeds silhouetted against the glistening background. My mount for the day was Mushe, a stunning statuesque bay gelding, one of the original horses that made the epic journey from Zimbabwe. As I sat astride him my mind wandered to the sights this horse had seen, the odyssey he had been on to arrive to his new heavenly home, riding Mushe felt like riding a living legend and participating in history. We journeyed through the biodiversity of Benguerra Island, from sandy forest tracks to open savannah lands, wetland eco-systems and freshwater lakes to the idyllic sandy shore line where we waded through transparent waters, a flamboyance of flamingos frolicking in the surf. After our utopian ride we had time to bathe in the Islands tepid waters, surrounded by beauty, gazing out to sea where the sky melted seamlessly into the horizon life could not possibly get any more splendid………, but it did. The Red Dune Ride is perfection personified, an absolute assault on the visual senses. It dominates the skyline, rising majestically from the flawless beaches from which we enjoyed more epic canters along the shore line as we edged closer to our Mecca. Our horses climbed hungrily skywards, their legs working hard through the deep sand until they reached the pinnacle of their climb. The view that awaited us was nothing short of spellbinding, a tapestry of colour sprawled beneath us, the vivid reds, burnt oranges, and golden yellows of the sands melted into the sparkling turquoise and radiant aquamarine of the ocean, it was otherworldly.
Magic happened out of the saddle also. One of our afternoon activities was a canoeing trip on the unspoilt Guvuro River, navigating through the wetlands, an aqueous highway fringed by dense thickets of towering reeds, lily pads dotting the tranquil waters like droplets on a window pane. The only sounds were that of nature, flocks of ducks splashing into flight, the soft swish of the oar as it sliced smoothly through the water. After watching the sunset erupt in an explosion of colour, G&T in hand, we returned in darkness. Our path was illuminated by legions of fireflies, it almost felt as if they had dropped from the star encrusted inky black sky to guide us home.
The most treasured assets of Mozambique Horse Safari are of course the horses. Many of these amazing equines made the perilous journey from Zimbabwe during a treacherous time of political violence, some were later added to the herd through various rescue missions in Mozambique, but all unique with their own incredible stories, wonderful personalities and all very deeply loved and cherished. Most of my time was spent astride the wonderful Chelsea, a beautiful SA Registered Boerperd Mare with comfortable paces, the perfect partner for enjoying endless exhilarating canters along the Mozambican shores. Mozambique as a country does not hold much of a horse culture and whilst Vilankulo does offer a slice of heaven on Earth for us humans, it is an incredibly challenging environment in which to keep horses, but a challenge is not something that Pat and Mandy shy away from too easily. Despite difficulties and some tragedies along the way, these horses have thrived and flourished in their sea side environment. With an army of attentive grooms at their every whim and a team of wonderful ladies that supply a constant stream of forage and grazing these beloved horses are living the life of equine affluence.
When holidaying with Mozambique Horse Safari one does not feel like a client, one becomes part of the family, part of their incredible story. Pat and Mandy are extraordinary hosts and despite their astonishing journey full of twists and turns from Zimbabwe to Vilankulo they are incredibly humble. I have many fond memories of sitting around the dinner table laughing and joking, listening in wide eyed admiration as Mandy, a natural story teller, recounts her tales, Pat nodding in serene agreement. What they have been through, and what life has thrown at them would crush lesser people, but yet they still have the ability to laugh, to joke, to share, to open their lives to others, truly exceptional people.
On my last morning in Vilankulo I rose early with the sun and walked to the beach in reflective silence, precious memories of the past week flooded my mind. The horses were ready and waiting by the shore, eager to frolic and play in the surf. Riding bareback against the pale dawn sky, soft waves gently nipping at my horse’s hooves I felt free, I felt at peace, and I felt like I had experienced Heaven on Earth………
Zara, Jill and Laura would like to thank Janine Whyte for visited and reviewing our Mozambique holiday. If you are interested in taking a trip here please find more information at Mozambique – Retzlaff Safari & Benguerra Lodge or email us on firstname.lastname@example.org.