I’m riding a horse into the setting sun on Benguerra Island, one of five in east Africa’s Bazaruto Archipelago, 30 minutes by speedboat off the coast of Mozambique.
The soft light casts long shadows through the bush, but my horse, Mushy, shows no signs of wanting to go home. He’ll saunter back through the palms when it’s time to eat. Right now, he’s taking things easy.
Benguerra is all about taking it easy. There are two five-star lodges on the island and guests pay around £985 per person per night.
Both are on the west side facing the mainland, backed by forest and fringed with palms. The bay, clear and turquoise, is a desert island cliché too.
But I am not one of the guests – there are no guests. It is April 2020, the world has shut down and I’ve been stranded here for six weeks. The day I rode through the bush was the day I was meant to be returning home.
Benguerra is all about taking it easy. There are two five-star lodges on the island and guests pay around £985 per person per night
I’d landed in Mozambique in February, all set for a six-week adventure looking after the horses for a holiday company, Mozambique Horse Safari. I was 30, horse-mad, and without a full-time job.
This volunteering opportunity seemed a perfect solution to my ‘Where next?’ problem. News of a pandemic was spreading but the horses needed to be looked after, guests or not. I just never thought I’d get trapped in paradise.
I’d come to cover for another girl, Polly, who had planned a six-week return to the UK to visit her family, and I soon fell into the rhythm of island life, living in two-room staff accommodation – yes, it had electricity and running water – around the back of the lodges.
I’d spend my days looking after the six horses (Tequila, Spot, Mushy, Ovambo, Vumba and Slash) and exploring, while evenings were spent talking to guests. Temperatures would hit the high 30s by 9am – by 10am, after walking the horses, I’d often return drenched in sweat.
I remember sitting on the beach with a sundowner soon after I arrived, thinking how lucky I was. But just a week in, talk of border closures reached me. My boss called from the mainland to say that if I wanted to leave, I’d better go now.
It wasn’t that easy. I’d need a boat to get off Benguerra then a flight from the nearest airport in Vilanculos – or, failing that, a ten-hour drive to Maputo to join the queues fleeing the capital. In the end the decision was made for me: within two days, the borders closed.
In those early weeks I did what everybody else was doing and worried about family I couldn’t get to, particularly my dad, who was in the vulnerable category.
My younger sister tried to set up family Zoom calls but the internet connection wasn’t strong enough.
Otherwise, life couldn’t have been more different. When I wasn’t taking the horses out to play in the sea or watching the blood-orange sunset, I would be overcome with guilty-pleasure thoughts: how did I get here?
With no guests, I was free to explore Benguerra’s east side: less protected than the area near the lodges, with huge waves crashing on the sand. I would stand on the dunes (on the alert for crocodiles, which inhabit the local lakes) and look out across the vast ocean: next landmass Madagascar, more than 700 miles away.
With Covid restrictions I was separated from the few staff remaining and put in a ‘bubble’ with two local grooms, Pasqual and Vasco. They took it in turns to help me look after the horses but could return to the mainland so they didn’t get ‘island fever’.
When I wasn’t taking the horses out to play in the sea or watching the blood-orange sunset, I would be overcome with guilty-pleasure thoughts: how did I get here?
As I only knew about five words of Portuguese and none of the local Xitswa language, I’d go days without speaking to anyone. For the first two or three months, I revelled in the time alone. I formulated ideas for my first novel.
As there were so few people around, the island had implemented ‘load shedding’ – shutting down electricity supply in certain quarters to help others – which meant only a couple of hours’ power a day.
Staying cool in the sticky temperatures was nigh on impossible, and food would go off quickly – my bosses sent parcels whenever they could find a boat. I experimented with limited supplies and once made a meal out of canned chickpeas covered in Marmite. I’d dream of decent bread and cheese.
Days fell into a pattern: I would get up at first light, around 5am, and feed the horses. The power was usually on until 10am, so I’d make coffee and drink it outside among the lemon trees.
The horses were my saving grace: I’d spend days in their company, talking rubbish to them. While there was no wi-fi, I could still communicate with home via WhatsApp, and my bosses had given me a Nokia phone with a local SIM so they could ring me to check I was OK.
In the UK, I’d always been self-conscious about what I looked like, stressing over what to wear. But here on Benguerra I took to wearing leggings every day, something I’ve not been able to shake since returning home.
The power would come back on in the evening and I’d pull together a meal, eating alone and exchanging voice notes with a friend who was living on the mainland, also unable to get back home.
A good night was when a bottle of wine was included in my grocery drop; otherwise, I’d head to bed as it got dark, curling up in the quiet of the night. Despite the lure of the luxury lodges, their huge double beds and private pools, I was never tempted to move to one, too terrified of being fired for breaking staff protocol.
The loneliness set in after four months. It was July – winter in Mozambique, but a month when temperatures can hit the high 20s. Since I arrived I’d been looking after a tabby kitten – something technically forbidden on Benguerra as it’s a national park – that had been found abandoned and brought to me. He was a three-week-old scrap when I got him and I named him Kovu.
The horses were my saving grace: I’d spend days in their company, talking rubbish to them
When I felt really low my little tomcat would keep me going. I watched, maternally, as his eyes changed from blue to yellow. He repaid me by becoming my feline shadow, even following me into the shower.
Then, that July, Kovu disappeared. Four nights in a row I slept with the door open, hoping he’d come back. I’d seen a python near the house and I kept on thinking maybe it had taken him.
I broke down, stopped eating and sleeping, and realised – as though for the first time – how isolated I was. He never returned.
It was time to plan my escape. The following month, rumours reached me of flights taking off from Mozambique. I booked one. It got cancelled. I booked another. It got cancelled again.
At one point I’d packed all my possessions and arranged a boat only to discover the flight due to leave the next day had been grounded. My family pleaded with me to just go and wait at the airport.
But in Mozambique they’re not places you just sit in. There are no facilities, and at that point, there weren’t any staff.
Despite the loneliness, when I was finally able to fly back to the UK in September, a big part of me didn’t want to go.
I’d got so used to being alone. I remember telling myself it wouldn’t be the last time I saw Benguerra. In the UK I entered two weeks’ isolation in a cottage in Wales, close to my sister, who organised my groceries – I can still remember the excitement I felt seeing a block of Cathedral City cheese.
My isolation in Mozambique made me more confident to try new things. I have since spent time remote working on Zanzibar and freelancing in publishing while trying to write. It also completely changed my career path.
OK, I might have taken three years to get my novel, One Moment, to publication stage, but it was Benguerra that gave me the idea. It would definitely not have happened if I’d stayed in London.
I’m not sure I’d spend so long alone on an island again, but if the chance to revisit Benguerra ever arises, I’ll take it. Part of me still hopes that Kovu is out there, playing in the dunes.