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Mandy Retzlaff’s great escape from Zimbabwe

In a new book, Mandy Retzlaff recalls the remarkable story of how she and her husband rescued 104 horses as they fled Zimbabwe for Mozambique. Here, she talks to ANTHONY HAYWARD.

Landing on Benguerra Island

For almost 10 years, Mandy Retzlaff and husband Pat  enjoyed the most idyllic existence on their Zimbabwean farm, bringing up three children and looking after their horses. It was a new dawn for the couple and the former British colony of Rhodesia, which had finally achieved its independence after years of guerrilla war resulting from the white minority government’s refusal to let go of power.

“I remember a place that was wild and filled with game,” Mandy recalls in her new book, One Hundred and Four Horses. “I remember a house with a giant mango tree in the garden and stables out back, where our horses grazed contentedly and waited to be ridden along dusty red tracks that wound their way into the bush.”

But this Heaven on Earth suddenly turned to Hell. Land ownership had long been an issue in the country, with whites – only 5 per cent of the population – owning 70 per cent of the most fertile land in 1979, when democracy came with the creation of Zimbabwe.

Robert Mugabe, who was elected president the following year, accepted land reform on a “willing seller, willing buyer” basis. Later, he tried to speed it up through compulsory acquisition, with compensation paid. In 2000, a further policy change was more drastic – land would be taken without compensation.

Suddenly, these “land grabs” became violent as Mugabe supporters who had fought in the bush war led invasions of mainly white-owned farms, The war vets threw the farmers off their land and, in the first two years, killed at least seven, as well as many more of their labourers – usually black Zimbabweans.

For Mandy and Pat, life was about to change. The couple had met in South Africa, to which Mandy’s family had moved from Ghana, where she was born. Pat – whose grandfather had owned stables in Berlin – was brought up in Tanzania, before his family moved to Rhodesia, where his father managed a cattle ranch.  

It was love at first sight for Mandy when, in 1976, she first set eyes on Pat at a party in Pietermaritzburg while he was studying at the University of Natal. The couple married two years later and brought up their children, Paul, Kate and Jay (Jonathan), in various homes across the newly independent Zimbabwe.

Moving to their own farmhouse, Crofton, in 1992 was intended to give the youngsters the dream childhood experienced by Pat, who took with the family four horses – including Frisky, who had been with him since his teens. Although Mandy had given up riding at the age of 12, she would fall in love with horses all over again.

“Farming in Africa is a privilege,” she tells me, “and we lived on a remote farm in the north of Zimbabwe. Our children would come down to breakfast and see a herd of kudu [antelope] and the African elephants that had been trained by our neighbours. They just had an idyllic childhood. Farming was a comfortable, wonderful life.”

Mandy and Pat were at their neighbours Charl and Tertia’s farmhouse when they heard news of the first white farmer to be killed in a land invasion, a day after war vets had squatted on his land, chanting and beating drums. Five other farmers who came to his aid were left badly battered.

Having just become a father, Charl started talking about getting his family out of the country. Not long afterwards, they found themselves surrounded by war vets.

In her book, Mandy chillingly recounts how she and Pat listened, unable to help, when Charl and Tertia established radio communication with them. The first shot fired by the invaders killed the couple’s dog.

However, the arrival of a convoy of cars averted Charl and Tertia’s worst fears. The local member of parliament stepped out and told the couple that they had stolen land that rightfully belonged to the people of Zimbabwe and the family’s lives would be saved if they left immediately.

Mobs paid visits to many farms, sometimes dousing horses in petrol and setting them alight. “Forty-five farms, most of our community, were trashed,” says Mandy.

She and Pat found refuge by leasing land at another farm, Palmerston Estates. While there, Crofton was occupied and, on returning, they discovered much of it had been dismantled to allow settlers to build new homes in the bush and their cat had been killed with a shotgun and all their chickens slaughtered. The couple’s gardener informed them that he had turned out the horses – and all were safe. 

Then, a man dressed in a Zimbabwean Air Force uniform arrived at Palmerston Estates with three others, probably all from Mugabe’s secret police.

When they demanded to see maps of the farm’s boundaries, Pat flew into a rage. As Mandy feared the worst, she fell to the ground, her legs giving way beneath her. Although the four men left, the air force officer crouched at Mandy’s side and uttered to her: “You must watch your husband. Otherwise, he will be no more.” 

Mandy says now: “It was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life because I knew what they were capable of. We had already lost friends by then. I just thought it was the end of us.”

The Retzlaffs planned to move again and sought to recover their own horses, as well as those of their former neighbours Charl and Tertia, who emigrated to New Zealand. Soon, other landless farmers were persuading the couple to take on their horses, too, and the herd rose to 300 – kept at various locations.

“People were looking for places to send their horses and we were lucky to have somewhere,” says Mandy. “It’s very hard to describe the effort Pat had to make, but he never gave up on these horses. 

“I struggled with it because, financially, we had no money and we had horses coming in, but Pat seemed determined that everything would be all right.”

In 2004, after six evictions, Mandy and Pat decided it was time to leave Zimbabwe – with their horses. Mozambique, just across the country’s eastern border and itself emerging from a long civil war, was the obvious destination.

Ideas of taking the horses across the mountains were ruled out after the couple rode the route, which was shrouded in mist and entailed passing through a dense pine forest. Mandy and Pat worried that they might encounter soldiers or bandits.

Instead, the couple decided to risk driving their truck through official border crossings, in the knowledge that horses were classified in Zimbabwe as domestic animals, as opposed to livestock, whose export was banned. They had room to take only 104 of their herd to their new home, at Chimoio, 120km over the border. 

“We decided to take the youngest and the healthiest and the hardiest,” explains Mandy. “We knew that Thoroughbreds would last only two minutes in Mozambique. We just looked for the real survivors. We spent a lot of time re-homing the rest. Many went to Harare, the Zimbabwean capital, where there are polo players and kids with horses.”

The great escape took place in a series of border crossings over almost two years. “There was a lot of bureaucracy with the paperwork,” says Mandy. “We had a lot of problems keeping horses on the truck for hours and hours, trying to water them.”

Once settled in Mozambique, Mandy and Pat became involved in an agricultural project that failed. There was also tragedy when some of the Retzlaff herd contracted ringworm in a country where few horses had been seen since the start of the civil war, when many were slaughtered for meat. Although there were vets in Mozambique, none was experienced in treating horses.

“We lost quite a few and have never seen anything like it,” says Mandy. “I lost my beloved horse Grey. I don’t think anything prepared us for Mozambique, but it’s awfully expensive moving horses, so we had to head for the nearest border.”

Nevertheless, Mandy opened a riding school while Pat laid the foundations of another enterprise that would give them a firm future in their adopted country. 

In December 2006, he started loading up the truck again – this time to take horses to the coast, at Vilanculos, to start a horse-riding holiday business. During the first year, Mandy travelled to see Pat only twice, before joining him permanently. “It was our only chance of getting these horses working,” she says. At the same time, business ground to a halt when Vilanculos was flattened by a cyclone.

Then, just as Mozambique Horse Safari started to take off, yet another tragedy struck. In 2010, more horses died as the result of eating a poisonous plant called crotalaria.

“We had lived side by side with these horses for so long and we were very close to them,” says Mandy. “So, when they were dying, that was the worst thing of all – the bond you have with these horses.

“We were up all night, burying them, then we had to face our clients in the morning as if nothing had happened.”

Only 30 of Mandy and Pat’s horses were left, but – in typical fashion – they have battled on and Mozambique Horse Safari has since thrived, offering rides along beautiful beaches at Vilanculos and on Benguerra Island. The couple’s son Jay still lives with his parents, working as a guide, and, of the 104 horses that came from Zimbabwe, 24 have survived.

“I do feel homesick for Zimbabwe at times and I’d love to have a cappuccino in Harare or my hair cut or a facial,” reflects Mandy, “but Mozambique is the most beautiful country in the world.

“We’ve come through this experience and here we are running a horse safari. If someone had told me 12 years ago that we’d be guiding horses across the beaches, I would have thrown my head back and laughed out loud. It’s been an absolute journey.

“Mozambique has 2,500 kilometres of the most beautiful coastline and I have to say it has to be the best beach riding in the world. Because it’s quite a remote destination and quite difficult to get to, it will always have an appeal. Once people are here and see the stunning beauty, it just takes your breath away.

“The fact that we are still here and have clients is absolute amazing – and may it continue! It’s all due to these beautiful horses, who are saving us now, I guess.”