June 24, 2011 7:08 pm

Exiles in paradise

Brutus, my designated mount for a week of riding on the beaches of southern Mozambique, had a speculative look in his eye as I approached him. Fair enough, because the stocky Basuto pony tied to a rail under a tree was a long way from home. He was born 10 years ago on a farm in Zimbabwe to classically minded owners – his fellow foals included Caesar and Roman – but his timing was bad. With elections to face, President Mugabe was keen to persuade any citizens who might not vote for him that they would be better off elsewhere.

As the situation deteriorated, farmers Patrick and Mandy Retzlaff, Brutus’s owners, were evicted from their sixth property in three years. They decided they had had enough and settled on the idea of fleeing the country to establish a horse-riding business, choosing Mozambique because horses were already common in Tanzania, Botswana and South Africa. But when they rounded up their foals and yearlings for the journey, neighbours in similar situations began to offer more, on the grounds that the animals would otherwise be abandoned, and probably eaten. So in 2003, the Retzlaffs arrived in the frontier town of Chimoio with 104 young horses – and no obvious place to go.

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During the post-colonial civil war that ended in 1992, horses and other animals became increasingly rare in Mozambique, so they had plenty of choice. After a few false starts, they set up in Vilanculos, a coastal town about 400 miles north of the capital, Maputo, with its own airport and an established if low-key tourist industry. The beaches are spectacular; vast stretches of sand just waiting to be galloped on, fringed by cliffs, mangrove swamps and fiery red dunes. The coral is great too, so there’s no more exciting place to combine riding and diving. Unlike many riding safaris, which get as far away from civilisation as possible, the Retzlaffs’ guests stay close to town, eating at a different restaurant each night – fresh fish and piri-piri chicken are headliners – and partying until dawn if they wish.

I met up with my group, organised by the adventure specialist Wild Frontiers, at Blue Water, a camp of eight rondavels on the beach and our base for the first four days’ riding. “They call me the galloping major,” said John, a retired soldier, proffering a grip of military iron and a steely stare that spoke of many previous equestrian campaigns. Our fellow travellers were his wife Christine, and two women in their 30s. Hidden from the world by floppy hat and Dolce & Gabbana shades, Helen looked like Greta Garbo as she deployed her iPhone and BlackBerry for the benefit of a French bank, while Jenny displayed sparkling joie de vivre in and out of the saddle.

The Retzlaffs’ company, Mozambique Horse Safari, offers a variety of options on a long, largely empty coast, but our days began in their immaculate stable yard down the road from Blue Water. As a refugee from Zimbabwe’s grasslands, Brutus is understandably obsessed with his next meal, a trait that has made him a local legend. Escaping from his corral on one occasion, he tucked into a maize patch and refused to stop when commanded by villagers who were too frightened of horses to shoo him away. On the day after the crime, Mandy was summoned to an impromptu hearing on the edge of the denuded field. After many cups of palm wine, Chief Pau Pau pronounced Brutus guilty of grand larceny and fined the Retzlaffs $100.

Map of Mozambique

True to form, the bay horse pranced eagerly along the sand track on our first expedition, then turned his attention to the food chain as soon as the trail narrowed. As he snatched at the vegetation we followed a chequered course behind Lucas, a wiry groom who ran ahead to clear toddlers and motorcycles from our path. East Africa is famous for long-distance runners born at altitude, but Lucas’s performance at sea level carrying a backpack loaded up with very welcome chilled water was impressive.

As we rode southwards into the bush, we passed villages that showed no signs of connection to the modern world. Mozambique has plentiful natural gas to sell to South Africa and coal that goes to Brazil but the gap between the ruling haves and the rural have-nots is bleak. Wherever we passed, we were greeted with waves and broad smiles by women with infants strapped to their breasts and water pots or firewood balanced on their heads. At one point, they rightly prevented us fording a very muddy stream where they were doing their washing.

As soon as we left the village belt we were in virgin bush, the way frequently barred by giant golden orb spiders in intricate webs stretched across the path at eye level. Although arachnophobes might have trouble believing it, they are as harmless as they are beautiful. At times we came on freshwater lakes where herons competed with enterprising locals for a Mozambique bream dinner but it was only when we approached the beach that Brutus pricked up his ears in anticipation of the fun part.

With home base as his target and no chance of snacking before he got there, he stretched out eagerly over the sand, an exhilarating surge of power that left his rivals trailing. “I wish I’d been born in the age of the cavalry charge,” said John, eyes alight when his horse caught up. Brutus’s enthusiasm for our swimming expedition at evening high tide was less apparent but eventually he agreed to go into the water so I could catch a wave and slither awkwardly on to his bare back.

Once we were launched, he was understandably reluctant to go far out of his depth, a point of view I wholeheartedly shared. Instead he swam in tight circles, creating hostile centrifugal forces that threatened to throw me into the sea. After a few minutes clinging to his mane and failing to get a grip on his sleek sides, I urged him towards the shore. Saved from a ducking, I joined the others in the heady euphoria of a mission precariously accomplished.

The coast to the north is more populated, especially the expansive sweep of Vilanculos Bay, where fishing boats and traditional Arab dhows gather. There are cafés where riders can tie up for a beer at noon and unnamed fishing villages with delectable freshly caught grouper for lunch. The dunes were a struggle for the horses but offered a prime view of the Bazaruto Archipelago, home to some chic luxury resorts.

One of the horses enjoys a dip in the Indian Ocean

One of the horses enjoys a dip in the Indian Ocean

Our final stop on the mainland was Sailaway camp, a remote spot with six semi-permanent walk-in tents owned by Dave Kimber, a man who left Johannesburg in 1992 on a backpacking trip to Europe but ran out of steam – and cash – in Vilanculos three months later. He now seems rather surprised that he has never left.

The next day we crossed to Benguerra, the smartest island in the Bazaruto Archipelago and a noted base for marlin fishing à la Hemingway. As yet, there are just three lodges, two of them genuinely five-star. Azura is eco-chic and Benguerra traditionally elegant, a tricky choice of romantic hideaways for a clientele dominated by honeymooners. Mandy and Pat keep 10 horses at Benguerra to use on on riding expeditions round the island.

This time I was allocated Tequila, a horse known for having a GPS set permanently in Zimbabwe. When he was in Vilanculos, he escaped whenever he could and headed for home. “Chasing him down and getting him back cost me a fortune,” said Pat, “so the only solution is to leave him on the island.”

Tequila seemed to have no problem with that as he galloped over glittering white sand in the early morning cool. Later, it was time to dive in choppy seas off Bazaruto’s celebrated Two Mile Reef. As I’d dislocated my shoulder in a swimming pool attempting the PADI refresher course, snorkelling was the best I could do. My finest sighting was a white-and-black-spotted porcupine fish lurking prehistorically under a rock, but the pretty coloured fish were out in force as well.

Even so, I envied the divers’ accounts of following a pair of huge turtles into a cave and evading Grey Reef sharks and Moray eels. Likewise Christine’s report of the Gallic personnel, suave Denis from Grenoble and hunky Rocco from Switzerland.

With a brisk breeze filling the dhow’s sails, we headed back to Sailaway camp against a flaming sunset. While the divers slept after their exertions, I drank chilled beer and ate fresh popcorn, cooked on board over an open fire. An unusual sundowner, perhaps, for a traditional dhow, but an appropriate finale to a thoroughly intriguing ride.

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Minty Clinch travelled with Wild Frontiers Adventure Travel (www.wildfrontiers.co.uk) which offers a 10-day group trip in May 2012 from £2,295 and tailor-made trips throughout the year

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