Our six-year-old daughter was the first of us to see the elephants, but the horse she was riding, a grey called Phoenix, had spotted them long before. His ears were cocked and eyes focused in the direction of the two large bulls calmly grazing boggy grassland against a backdrop of African bush.
We were just in front of our camp but the elephants were only a few hundred yards away, near enough for us to hear the ripping of stems and splashing of heavy feet, watched intently by our daughter Tess and her eight-year-old brother Kit, mounted on a dappled grey called Star.
“No closer, please!” said our guide Mod Manyema, stopping our posse with a gentle pull on Phoenix’s lead rein.
Horseriding, exciting enough for small children anywhere, is even more so in Botswana’s Okavango Delta. As Manyema explained, “All the horses are used to seeing elephants but we always have to keep a safe distance.”
Fascinated by what they were seeing from the saddle, the children listened as Manyema told them more: about the six sets of teeth that an African elephant works through in a lifetime of chewing, about the fierce protectiveness of mothers towards their calves, about the unpredictability of males ready to mate.
In front of us spread a lush floodplain picketed on all sides by high trees – mopane, leadwood, wild fig, acacia – and coarse, often thorny undergrowth. It was a wild stage set, with cries from fish eagles and shrieks from baboons providing the soundtrack, and walk-on parts for the bigger animals.
As we turned back, three large, dark shapes came into view: buffalo. It’s an animal with a well-deserved reputation for feistiness – an old saying goes that “a buffalo looks at you as if you owe it money”. They were a little further away than the elephants but Manyema was anxious to keep it that way.
The Okavango Delta is one of the world’s last remaining wilderness areas, unfenced and remote enough to need a light aircraft to access much of it. Each year, floods from Angola transform this 10,000 sq mile patch of Kalahari sand into a quilted waterscape of islands separated by channels and lagoons, the water making the desert bloom with vegetation so rich that it supports huge and diverse population of wildlife.
From May to August much of the delta becomes unreachable by vehicle, leaving most tour operators with reduced options for how their clients can explore. African Horseback Safaris has 50 horses at its Macatoo camp, all trained to navigate water and uneven ground, giving competent riders the chance to splash alongside giraffes or zebra, often at a gallop.
The longer rides, which last up to four hours, have a strict over-12 age limit but Macatoo has extended its repertoire to accommodate younger family members on what amounts to a “Thelwell Goes To Africa” adventure.
The children’s daily rides, usually in the cool of the evening, were the highlight of our trip. For safety, they wore helmets and were led at all times on horses chosen for their steady temperament. They could not stray beyond the vicinity of the camp, although there was still plenty of excitement in a terrain that varied from marshy plain to sandy scrubland.
“Please can we go through the water again?” Kit begged as he went out once more on Star. It was my fatherly duty to lead him through 2ft-deep water in one of the channels close to where we ate our evening meals on a patch of Kalahari sand that catches the setting sun.
One day, as the horses prepared to walk through the sandy pathways near the tents, another knowledgeable guide, Bongwe Makate, showed us fresh lion spoor from where a big cat had passed through the previous night. Kneeling to show the children how the lion’s claws left no marks because they are retracted when moving, Makate reassured us that all lion movements are carefully followed to make sure no people or horses move around if they are still in the area.
Before arriving at Macatoo, we had been concerned about the children having enough to keep them safely occupied, given that it is inadvisable to stray out of sight. However, it turned out to be a perfect playground: colossal termite mounds to “mine”, trees to climb and the channel in front of camp to practise handling a mokoro, an Botswanan punt – not to mention the plunge pool, which kept us all cool.
The stable was of particular interest to the children. Each morning they would go to watch the adults heading out for the long morning ride before the other horses, the ones not needed that day, were let loose from their stables and allowed to canter off to graze.
Once, in the small hours, we were woken by the sound from snapping branches and grinding molars just outside and, for the next 90 minutes, the two children bounced between the tent’s bug-proof gauze windows giving a commentary on four male elephants grazing the other side of the canvas. It was 4am.
Beyond the riding, there were other activities for the children. Makate drove us a short distance in an open-top safari jeep to fish in a lagoon, briefly delayed while a male giraffe crossed just in front of us. As Makate taught the children how to cast off, ducking every so often when Tess’s flying hook came close to catching his skin, he delivered a masterclass in bushcraft. Naming the birds that darted overhead, he mimicked their calls and encouraged Kit and Tess to have a go.
“There aren’t any hippos here but there may well be crocodiles,” he warned, carefully showing the children where they could safely stand.
An hour of patient fishing later, Kit felt a tug on his line. He offered his rod to Makate to reel in the catch but the guide refused, gently coaching our son as he landed his first freshwater fish. After a few minutes’ struggle, a 10-inch African pike was hanging from the line in Kit’s hand, his grin, under his wide sun hat captured for the family album.
Tim Butcher is the author of ‘Chasing the Devil’ (Chatto and Windus).
He was a guest of African Horseback Safaris (africanhorseback.com), whose rates start at £445 per person per night, all inclusive