Rare wildlife, elusive dugongs and wild horses – a Mozambique trip offers an epic getaway of a lifetime.
Vilankulo, a small coastal town in the Inhambane province of Mozambique, is best known as the gateway to the stunning Bazaruto Archipelago. These breathtaking islands inside the Bazaruto National Park, which are home to the rare dugong, draw tourists from around the world. Could Bazaruto really be as beautiful as it looked in pictures?
I was staying at Santorini Mozambique and my first afternoon was spent indulging in utter luxury. If it weren’t for the famed archipelago and plentiful activities on my doorstep, I could easily have kicked back and relaxed in this sanctuary all weekend! But as blissful as it was to do nothing in the serene hideaway of Santorini, adventure awaited.
After a quick town tour to get to know the town, the Santorini team took me to check out Machilla Magic to pick up some souvenirs.
An organisation set up to empower local people through arts and crafts, the Machilla Magic project has grown to an initiative with over 50 independent artisans. It was originally developed as a way of helping local people find new ways of generating income (as so many rely solely on fishing) by providing training to artists in how to create carvings, trinkets and souvenirs. As well as smaller handicrafts – all made from sustainable resources – they even have furniture (although sadly, this was too big to fit in my suitcase to take home!).
I picked up a couple of adorable humpback whale carvings (complete with removable fins so they didn’t get damaged in transit) and a mini wooden dugong – perhaps it would serve as a lucky charm for the dugong I hoped to see on my visit to Bazaruto Island.
Pat and Mandy’s Story
Before I ventured to Bazaruto on my Mozambique trip, I had a stop I needed to make in Vilankulo. I’d heard of the incredible story of Pat and Mandy Retzlaff from Mozambique Horse Safari and I wanted to meet them. In 2001, they were living in a sleepy farming town in Zimbabwe.
The area was renowned for its polo and gymkhana and most of the farmers owned and loved horses. The land invasions changed everything. As they gathered pace, neighbours and friends decided to leave the country, leaving their horses behind for Pat and Mandy to care for. Eventually, they would be caring for more than 300 animals. After six evictions – when they might have just a few hours to vacate their property and move the horses – the couple decided they too had to leave Zimbabwe.
There was nowhere for them to go but Mozambique. Trying to smuggle their horses across the border would be both risky and dangerous. Somehow, over two years, they managed to take 104 horses – legally – across the border to safety. This wasn’t the end of their struggle. Mozambique had just emerged from a 20-year civil war and an investment the Retzlaffs had made went sour, leaving them in a desperate financial situation. And so, they decided their beloved horses would have to start earning their keep – and so Mozambique Horse Safari was born.
While I can summarise, the story really needs to be told in their own words so here’s just a taster (for more, check out Mandy’s bestselling book One Hundred & Four Horses):
“How can you explain a situation where a family would be having lunch, then suddenly one of your workers would appear at the door and knock nervously? On opening you would find him with his cap in hand and look of fear in his eyes. They are here, he would whisper and point to the gate. Looking across the lawn you would see a mob of shabbily dressed men armed with sticks shouting abuse. You would walk over and ask them to explain themselves. A letter would be handed over to you. In broken English it would tell you that you must vacate your farm as they were the new owners and everything was now theirs.
“Then the drums would beat as the rabble round your gate became drunk and in some cases high. The children would climb into bed with you and the dogs would bark incessantly. This would happen night after night and you would be so traumatized. In some cases they would kill your dog or a beloved cat would go missing. Your labour force would be threatened and things became ugly. In our case our neighbours were nearly killed, their dog was shot and they themselves thought they would die. Fortunately they had a reprieve and were able to get out alive, their little family all in tact but some did not. None of us were spared the trashing and looting of the homesteads and all that was left were the walls.”
Mozambique Horse Safari
As well as meeting Pat and Mandy, I also met some of their remaining horses – they have 33 used for beach riding in Vilankulo and six on Benguerra Island. Each of the horses have their own stories and personalities. For example, Brutus – the “fat one” who constantly stops to eat everything in sight – was once arrested by local police when he escaped from the stables, ran to a nearby village and ate all their maize. Black Beauty is recognisable for his short tail, which was cut off by a witch doctor who broke into the stables.
I would be riding Coco – a young Arab broodmare rescued from Maputo. She was spirited, to say the least. At first, we ambled gently along the beach enjoying the view. When it was time for a canter, she shot away like a bullet from a gun and we sped over the sand, being careful to avoid the many boat anchors peppering the path. For the rest of the ride she danced and fidgeted, desperate for another chance to fly across the beach.
After our ride, we were enjoying our lunch and Charlotte – who had been leading our ride – took an urgent phone call and disappeared; a look of concern furrowing her brow. When she returned, not long after, the situation had been resolved and she filled us in.
After our ride, Megan – one of the original horses brought over from Mozambique – had been tied up in the yard while the grooms were putting the horses away. Suddenly, a man came running out of nowhere shouting “It’s my horse!” while jumping onto Megan. A quick-witted groom threw a monkey orange, hitting the man who was already unsteady on the startled horse and knocking him off. He ran away before they were able to catch him and the police were called to try to find him – they expect he was trying to take the horse for a ransom. An eventful end to our visit but, thankfully, Megan was unharmed.
The Search for Dugong
The next day, I would finally have the opportunity to see Bazaruto. I’d been trying not to get too over excited about the possibility of seeing a dugong. With around 300 of these rare creatures left on Bazaruto, my chances of seeing one weren’t too high.
I still couldn’t help myself though and when I boarded the Sunset Dhow Safari boat which was taking me to Bazaruto Island, I had to cheekily ask: “Do you think we’ll see a dugong today? I really want to see a dugong…” He’d do his best, he assured me, but – of course – nothing is guaranteed when it comes to the ocean.
The winds were low so we had a smooth crossing and before long were cruising into Bazaruto. In dribs and drabs, we drifted away from shore to climb the dunes; the hot sand scalding our feet around the edges of our flip flops.
The view from the top of the dunes can only be described as unreal – it really was picture perfect. The white sands and azure water intermingled like the layers of a sand art bottle. We sat at the top of the dunes admiring the view for around an hour until the crew began preparing a BBQ to grill our lunch and we jumped back on the boat to visit Two Mile Reef for a quick snorkel.
As we sat on the beach eating our BBQ lunch back on Bazaruto, my eyes drifted to the horizon and I saw something strange in the water. I could have sworn it was the flick of a mermaid’s tail. The shape was unmistakable. A mermaid’s tail – or was it… could it be?
Leaving my almost-finished plate behind, I dashed to the water’s edge and clambered onto a rock to get a better view. Two private boats were circling slowly around one particular section of water, all eyes on the water. And then I saw it again – movement in the water. This time the friendly, brown face of a dugong popped up now and again to look back at the boat.
From where I stood, it was just like a little cork popping up in the water now and again – it was too far from shore for me to get a good look. So I decided perhaps I could try to get closer. Another guest overheard my plan and decided to join me.
We spoke to our boat’s captain to ask if it was safe to snorkel out a little way and, with his OK, grabbed our masks and paddled out. We were in such a rush we didn’t even climb back onto the boat to grab our fins (spoiler: this was a big mistake on our part!).
We swam out to the point we thought we’d seen the dugong; on the way, the boats we’d seen sailed back into shore past us. We shouted up to them and they confirmed our suspicions that they’d been watching a dugong swimming next to them for the past few minutes.
Without the boats to aim for, though, we realised there was no real way of us knowing where in the water the dugong could be. We swam a bit further and looked around. There was no sign of it. Bobbing in the water for a minute, trying to look for signs of life on the surface, we realised there was now a strong current pulling us further out to see.
With no real chance of seeing the dugong now, we decided it was safest to try to swim back to shore. It was only when we turned and attempted to swim back in that we realised how strong the current was – we were kicking with all our might and barely moving. Uh oh.
After a long, arduous swim, the shore gradually started to inch closer and closer to us. By the time it was shallow enough for our feet to touch the sea bed, we were utterly exhausted – but at least we were safely back on land!
“What’s that?” my friend asked, pointing at a large dark shadow lurking about a metre away from us in the water. Probably a patch of seagrass, we thought.
But seagrass doesn’t move. And this shadow was indisputably moving alongside us, against the strong current. We put our masks back on and stuck our faces tentatively under the water to see what it could be. The visibility was so bad we couldn’t see anything other than silt and sand; a beige veil in front of our faces.
But it was definitely moving and whatever it was must be a powerful swimmer to battle this strong current with such ease. Knowing that dugongs – being mammals – would need to come up for air after a few minutes, we waited; eyes fixed on the dark patch of water in front of us.
A Friend in the Water
Eventually, the face of a dugong (yey!) broke the surface of the water and peered at us – we couldn’t quite believe it. It checked us out for a second, took a big breath and disappeared under the water. Its dark shadow looped in a large circle, towards the ocean and then back alongside us, poking its head out of the water once more as it drew next to us. Then, as quickly as it appeared, it dipped its head below the water again and swam back out to sea.
We looked at each other amazed – we’d barely expected to see one of Bazaruto’s rare dugongs, let alone share the water with one.
Our meeting with a dugong would have been the perfect way to end our day trip but we had one more bonus in the form of a quick stop to the unspoiled Benguerra Island to soak up the peace and quiet of the deserted island before returning to the bustle of Vilankulo.