On the southern coastline of Mozambique facing the Indian Ocean, there is a beach and fishing town called Vilanculos. About half way down its golden shoreline, a dusty blue and white sign for a lodge called ‘Blue Water Beach’ leads up a narrow flight of steps, and overlooking the aqua waters, a children’s swing hangs by an empty swimming pool. Along with abandoned caravans and vacant huts, this is pretty much all that remains of the closed-down resort and camp site.
But at around 8am every morning, this eerie little place comes to life again with the barking of five dogs and the chatter of a horse-loving expatriate family as they gather for breakfast at one of the beachside shacks. Sky News blares from the TV as local staff help to lay out fresh coffee, fruit and coconut yoghurt. By the time the eggs and toast are ready, the conversation has usually turned to politics.
Pat Retzlaff, the patriarch of the group, is a horseman, animal-lover, former farmer and dare I say it, a Boris Johnson fan. He is married to Mandy Retzlaff, a strong mother and wife if there ever was one, who also just happens to be a fabulous author and soap-maker. Together, they run a business called Mozambique Horse Safari, offering tourists everything from beach rides to bush hacks in this rugged and idyllic stretch of land they call home.
Other regulars at the table are Pat and Mandy’s volunteers. Typically 20-something females, they come for opportunities to work with horses in Africa and are quickly welcomed into the family as if they were the couple’s adopted children. As Pat teaches them about horse training and care, Mandy offers soap-making and boyfriend advice while plying them with mountains of calorie-dense, delicious food. And as with most families, there is never a dull moment at mealtimes. When not debating Brexit or the impact of the world’s booming population, the group shares stories of family, horses and travel as they fight over the butter.
Today, Pat and Mandy say they are content with their simple life in the former Portuguese colony, though it wasn’t always so. When they first arrived with their three children more than 15 years ago, settling in was a struggle. They hadn’t moved to Mozambique by choice, but fled there in desperation from neighbouring Zimbabwe. In the land they knew as Rhodesia, white farmers were being kicked off their properties by way of violent land invasions, carried out in the name of President Robert Mugabe’s land reform programme. Stories of beatings, even deaths, were common as the whole community became gripped in fear. The Retzlaff’s story is particularly incredible, as not only did they save their own lives, but also those of a hundred and four horses.
When I ask Pat if he misses Zimbabwe, his reply is: “Of course darling”, though they have no intention of going back. He says the agricultural industry and economy in what was once dubbed the ‘jewel of Africa’ has simply collapsed in the political chaos, and there is nothing to go back to.
“What about moving to Europe?” I suggest, thinking it might be an easier place for the couple to enjoy retirement than post-civil-war Mozambique. “Darling,” Pat answers with a shocked look on his face (partly because he has no plans to retire): “I have lived in Africa my whole life. Why would I leave?”
The current problem facing my hosts is actually less about politics and more to do with cyclones and cholera in northern Mozambique earlier this year. With so much media hype, many would-be tourists have seemingly abandoned their travel plans despite the fact that much of the country (and certainly Vilanculos) has seen no such chaos. As for me, I decided to ignore all the scaremongering and get on the plane anyway.
An unexpected paradise
I’d seen the pictures on the website of course, but not even they could prepare me for how beautiful the place was. My dreamy commute to work was a 6am stroll along the sand gawping at the warm hues of a magnificent sunrise. Later in the day, the ocean became striped with orange-yellow sandbanks and a mix of turquoise and azure waterways that looked like rivers. The ground was also littered with oyster shells, so that in the blazing sun - so bright you could barely open your eyes without sunglasses - the entire bay glistened. Riding along on horseback, squadrons of “army crabs” moving in formation were among the few aquatic life-forms around but would run speedily into their holes as we approached.
Not every day was the same. Sometimes it was refreshingly windy and others so hauntingly calm the sea was more like glass than ocean, creating this endless velvet-blue backdrop that made it difficult to spot the horizon. These were my favourite days, when swimming was heavenly and spooky at the same time (I had only a slight fear of a shark appearing).
Adding to the charm were the endless rows of mangroves that formed a barrier between bush and beach. As we picked our way through on the horses, the roots, sticking up like sharpened pencils, looked quite menacing despite being mostly soft and harmless. It was only when I smacked my head on one of the branches I realised the bigger danger was the mangrove bark. Pat sympathised, calling it "strong as steel”.
Not far from the shore (and less of a hazard) fairy-tale Baobab trees dotted around the bush also caught my attention. Nicknamed the upside-down tree because its branches look like roots, the Baobab, we were told, bears fruit with even more Vitamin C than oranges. They were apparently planted in Vilanculos by early Arab traders to prevent sailors getting scurvy, and Pat pointed to one that was around a thousand years-old.
But my favourite part of the landscape was the coconut palm forest, lying just behind the mangroves. A classic symbol of paradise, the trees lazily reached for the sea, miraculously growing sideways as well as upwards and dropping fruits, leaves and branches all over the ground to create this fabulous coconut jungle. I loved riding through it at high tide, when all you could hear was the water, the breeze, the crunching of the debris under the horse’s feet and the occasional exotic bird.
I later discovered, to my amazement, that this unique and captivating coastline was actually only part of the lure to Vilanculos. I learned the town was also a gateway to the six-island Bazaruto Archipelago National Park, known for its sand dunes, coral reefs, bird species and marine life.
The whole area was in fact so pristine and paradisiacal it was easy to forget I was in Africa. I was reminded with the sight of fishermen and their anchored dhow boats, women carrying buckets on their heads, the incredible dancing at the local fishing village and the excited children gawping in wonder, shouting “hola!”, as we passed by on these strange-looking, non-native beasts.
Africa, a place I’d previously only associated with bush and game, was seemingly even more vast and diverse than I’d given it credit for.
Our very special horses
While I was perpetually dazzled by the landscape, my focus in Africa was the horses. Pat and Mandy’s herd included everything from stallion to foal, Boerperd to Arab, and from those bought-in to those rescued (including some of the horses from Zimbabwe). I was excited to meet them all, and for a chance to learn about training.
Pat, a wonderful horseman, taught me a lot, and using a variety of methods. For example, to make sure I mastered how to pick horses’ hooves “the farrier way”, he made me do the feet of the entire herd at 5.30am every morning for about three weeks. I moaned about it (a lot) but came away feeling like an expert. He also helpfully reminded me that horses were not machines, saying it was ok to let them eat on rides or stand still while they pooed, which I happened to agree with. Naturally, he also had some comments about my riding: “Darling, what on earth are you doing?” he would say. And sure enough, those days when my trusty steed wasn’t cooperating, he always seemed to be watching. Like my family, he said I argued too much, but I was listening more than he knew.
Something else I thought about in Africa was advice given to me by my mum (a non-rider): to give myself and the horses time to get to know each other. I contrasted it with what riding instructors always say, that the best riders can get on any horse and ride well. After Mozambique, I remain convinced that both are true. A good example was my relationship with one of our older horses Viper. The first time I got on him he tried to buck me off within seconds, but after a string of nice rides, we seemed to warm to each other. I shocked Pat when I later added him to my list of favourites.
Which brings me to my next realisation, a quote a friend passed along: “There are only two emotions that belong in the saddle: patience and a sense of humour.”
Of course the best teachers were the horses themselves. A young and nervous mare called Dimples, and another youngster called Cloud who was forever trying to eat the hair bobbles on my wrist, affirmed to me that some horses respond only to the carrot, never the stick. Evita, Pat’s special and forward-going mare, taught me always to look out for tree branches after we crashed into one neck-first (which was a bit like being decapitated). Bazan, whose floppy ear gave him a look of cuteness and mischief, reminded me never to judge a book by its cover after he emerged to be fabulously speedy and reliable. A front kick from Apollo, our six-month old, meanwhile taught me not to underestimate an untrained foal, and Holly, the first and last horse I rode at MHS, showed me that swimming on a horse is… well frankly, a lot harder than it looks.
Last but not least were the four greys who came to us a few weeks after I did, from a family in the north who were moving to Europe. They included three part-Arabs (grandma Rasheed, mother Sarana and baby Cadenza) as well as an orphaned three-year-old Basuto pony Allesia. I became quite attached to this beautiful mini-herd, and they got me thinking a lot about human-horse relationships, wondering what horses really think of us. I had no concrete answer of course, but after lots of happy grooming and terrific rides, hoped that horses do like to be ridden if we treat them well, and reasoned I could be very happy with an Arab of my own.
Pat, Mandy and Yoga
Now while I went to Africa primarily for the horses, it seemed only fair that I simultaneously heed my other calling in life and spread the word about yoga. “It’s so good for you,” I pleaded with Pat over breakfast, “just try it once and if you don’t like it you never have to do it again.”
A curious Pat, unlike most people I try to persuade, listened intently, though I still figured he was the least likely to be convinced. But somehow my determination and persistence paid off. After only a week, Pat agreed that he and Mandy would give it a try, if only to see what all the fuss was about.
To which Mandy replied: “Absolutely not Pat, you will go to yoga and I will stay at home, I hate any form of exercise.”
The following day I laid out mats on the rooftop of the future MHS coffee shop (still under construction) and looking out at the bay, knew it was the ideal place to practice. Mandy, despite her protests, actually turned up (proving she loved Pat more than she hated exercise) along with three other friends from town. Nervously, I began to explain how it all worked, trying hard to be gentle.
Lots of heavy breathing, whinging and some hilarious photographs later, I had finally managed to lure them in. Devoid of props, I swapped yoga straps for lead ropes and blocks for books. Pat, ever the hard-working student and high-achiever, struggled with not being his 20-year-old, army-fit self but refused to be defeated. He reminisced about his time in the Rhodesian military, telling me they had to do a pull-up every day before they got fed (I could only imagine my starvation). In fact, he took the whole yoga thing so seriously that he even swapped his second-skin jeans for tracksuit bottoms and began following my advice to drink water at breakfast (both came as a shock to all who know him). Mandy meanwhile, though unequivocal about her hatred of plank pose, secretly began to enjoy it. Aside from some great teaching experience, it made me tremendously happy to bring something healthy and therapeutic into their hectic lives.
Next chapter… the US of A
Eleven weeks of riding, grooming, teaching yoga and eating full-fat everything… I have achieved the impossible and gained weight in Africa. But along the way, I have made some amazing new friends, visited another country and gained a wealth of horse experience that I will take with me forever. Though saying goodbye to MHS made me cry, I am super excited about what’s to come: a new adventure at Bitterroot Ranch in the United States of America!
Stay tuned for more stories from this wannabe cowgirl…