“Have you ever swum with a horse?” British riding instructor Charlotte Levens asked me, as we trotted along the leafy green pathways that curve out towards the emerald waters of Mozambique’s stretch of Indian Ocean. In the distance, a flock of pelicans lingered on a sand bank, dipping their long beaks into the shallow swell for fishy treasures to snack on.
I had to laugh. Benguerra Island, where we were, is known for its sea creatures; whale sharks, turtles, dolphins and dugongs — a slimmer and more endangered relative of the manatee — inhabit these waters. If anything, I had banked on swimming with one of those. But a horse? Who comes to a tropical island to swim with a land mammal?
Me, as it turned out. But first we had the lush green pathways of Benguerra Island to explore, flanked by sand dunes and crocodile lakes. The vegetation here changes with the seasons, and dries out during the Mozambican summer months (from December until June), brightening with the winter cool and rains. We rode past milkwood trees, palms that wavered in the light breeze, and pockets of vegetation rich in local medicinal and cosmetic remedies such as the plant dubbed the ‘shampoo shrub’; pick a handful, add a drop of water, rub your palms together and wash your hair with the most organic alternative to shampoo you’ve ever come across.
After exploring the island, Charlotte and I tethered the horses outside one of the casitas at &Beyond Benguerra — the eco-chic resort that’s home to the stables — and slipped off the horses’ sweaty saddles. I chose leave my horse’s bridle on and hold onto the reins, but Charlotte ditched hers in favor of holding onto her horse’s mane. A quick swimwear change, and then we were off, slowly edging into the warm ocean. I had expected the water to come up to our knees at best, but the horses took real pleasure in the salty swell, snorting as they pushed deeper into the waves. And then they were swimming; bending their knees and wiggling their haunches as the ocean rose up over their bellies.
Although the horses’ swimming seemed effortless, their backstory is fraught with troubles. The horses come from the Zimbabwe farm of Pat and Mandy Retzlaff; in 2002, the couple were evicted from their farm during a wave of land grabs targeting the rural properties of white Zimbabweans. As their neighbors fled further afield, Pat and Mandy accumulated 104 horses, including Thoroughbreds, Arab breeds and South African Boerperd horses, pledging to take care of them and to find them good homes.
With few options for the horses’ future in Zimbabwe — and willing to do anything to avoid seeing them slaughtered for meat or left exposed to predators in the wild — Pat and Mandy decided to take them across the border into Mozambique. Horse-riding schools were already commonplace in Tanzania, South Africa and Kenya, and the couple decided to create an alternative on Mozambique’s sandy shores. They made their home in Vilanculos, just across the water from Benguerra Island, initially stationing the horses in stables before selecting the hardiest animals for the three-hour barge crossing to the island. Sadly, limited veterinary care coupled with endemic disease crippled Pat and Mandy’s horse population over the years, with many animals dying from toxic poisoning. Only a few dozens of the original 104 horses are still alive.
Gently persuading the horses to slip out of the ocean and return to shore, Charlotte pointed out a scar on the shoulder of the horse I was riding. “That’s where he was shot,” she told me. I ran my hand over the scar and the horse flinched. The horses may be in paradise now, but even the warm waters of the Indian Ocean won’t wash away the trauma of their experience. Still, they seemed delighted to take us into the sea, snorting and shaking their manes as the water licked their shoulders.It was my first bareback riding experience, and it was unbeatable. I came out of the ocean as happy as the horses, thrilled to have felt the sun warming their skin without a heavy saddle between us.
How to swim with horses in Mozambique
Pat and Mandy Retzlaff run Mozambique Horse Safari (tel: +258 8425 12910 or +258 29384297), based in Vilanculos, and with a satellite office at &Beyond Benguerra on Benguerra Island in the Bazaruto archipelago. Mandy Retzlaff’s autobiography, 104 Horses, makes for a great read before the trip and covers the horses’ back story and reflections on southern Africa and this slice of coastal Mozambique.
Two and four-hour riding trips (from 1500 Mets per person) are available in Vilanculos, taking in lakes, beaches and local villages. Accommodation can also be arranged. On Benguerra Island, horse treks last between three and four hours and can include swimming experiences depending on weather and the tide. All levels are catered for, with grooms available to lead beginners. Week-long horse safaris can also be arranged.