Feature From elephants to bicycles, the game of polo has many incarnations. Recently, Dubai put its mark on the sport with a new idea: camels.
Camels up, mallets down
Its players include the royal and the mega-rich and its spectators provide the best-looking crowds in sport, so it's perhaps not surprising that polo is extremely popular in Dubai. Sporting standard polo garb, complete with tight, white trousers and knee-high leather boots, topped off with long, bleach-blond hair and a deep mahogany tan, Steve Thompson, the managing director of the Dubai Polo Academy, looks like a Jilly Cooper hero. He surveys a nervous-looking group of rookies who have gathered on the terrace at the Dubai Polo and Equestrian Club for a pep talk. "Don't lean too far over with the stick, or they'll simply fall over," Thompson barks. "And don't hit them on the legs with it, or you'll end up in Abu Dhabi."
This whole scene could have been lifted from Cooper's novel Polo. Except for the fact that there isn't a horse in sight. Instead, eight camels wait patiently on the sidelines, swinging their long-suffering gaze from left and right, and issuing intermittent low grunts. For this is camel polo: a concept that Thompson has been developing over the last year, and has just launched on an unsuspecting public.
His team from the polo club have spent over a year training the camels for four hours a day in the necessary skills for the game. "When camels are trained for racing, they only need to go straight," says Thompson. "The secret in training is dates. Encourage it to go left; feed it. Encourage it to go right; feed it. They eventually start realising. Anyone will do anything for food, which explains why they're mostly male," he laughs. Joking aside, special double-seated saddles have been manufactured with a handle-bar for added security, and trained adult camel jockeys have been brought on board to lead the famously unpredictable animals around during play.
Apparently, they often decide to sit down in the middle of a game. As for training people to play? According to Thompson, "There are no skills necessary, and it's just hilarious - for us anyway." We are given a stick and a ball and are taught the grip, as well as a backwards and forwards swing. There are a few satisfying cracks as the stick makes contact with the ball, but mostly there is that swooshing sound familiar to many a learner golfer - the air shot. We practise with a partner and the polo club team try not to look exasperated as we execute an array of tennis and golf swings. "If you do it like that, you'll hit the camel in the face," says Nils, another tanned, similarly Jilly Cooper-esque character and member of Steve's team.
Once we have mastered the basics, or not, as the case may be, it is time for the gymkhana. We clamber aboard a collection of remarkably clean, chipper-looking camels, all chosen for polo because of their slight and athletic build. There are some posts we need to negotiate and a jump, which we (not the camels), are to jump. We are led by the camel jockeys, who puff and pant their way around the course, practically dragging the camel and its cargo round. When we get to the jump, they make a rasping, throaty sound, which makes the camel sit down in its comical headfirst way. We hop off, leap over the jump, run around and back onto the camel before heading back to the finishing line. Even with some horse riding experience, it is difficult to anticipate the camel's brisk trot, and, despite our stirrups, we bounce around freely to much hilarity. One team member makes the mistake of leaning sideways around a bend - something we had been warned against because of the camel's narrow body - and narrowly avoids crashing to the floor, as the entire saddle, complete with rider, slips downwards.
After a brief rest and a much needed drink, it is time for the match. We remount our camels, who by now are looking considerably less chipper, and head into the middle of the field for the play-off. Suffice to say, it is bedlam. There is a sea of camel legs, human legs and elongated sticks, interspersed with occasional glimpses of an oversized beach ball (a real ball would be a stretch too far - quite literally). Camel jockeys and polo club people are running in every direction, giving the ball an occasional boot to keep things moving and screaming encouragement as we grapple with our sticks and swipe at it ineffectually. Somehow, goals are scored and victory goes to the green team. Congratulations and commiserations are offered. The camel jockeys, who have been leading the camels during the game, look close to expiring. Amazingly, none of the camels decided to sit down.
This unique sport is initially being aimed at the corporate market, where, apparently, its collaborative qualities will appeal to those looking to do team-building activities. "It's a great leveller; everybody's the same once they're on a camel," says Adrian Sime, the manager of business development at Dnata Travel Services, who have added the activity to their corporate portfolio. But it's not just the new paintballing for corporate bonding; any group of eight or more can sign on. "It's for a group of friends or a golf society. Everybody can do it, regardless of size, strength, or skill," he says.
It is not the first deviant form of the sport: elephant polo has been played in Nepal, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand for 25 years. "It's a mirror image of elephant polo," says Thompson. "Except the elephants just walk - it's rubbish. Here, camels are in trot mode and we've got another six to eight months when we'll start to canter them." Thompson has ambitious plans to extend the activity into a full-blown sport. "A year from now, we'll probably be playing proper matches, where there's a camel jockey driving and a player playing, which will eliminate the need for a leader. We just need them to steer a bit better. But at these events, we're not training people to be camel experts; we're training them to have fun." Camels are extremely intelligent beasts, Thompson assures me. "If you watch them on exercise at Nad al Sheba, they're very articulate. They can kick out, they can rear, they can do whatever a horse does. It's just that their nature is to conserve energy. And they just think, 'Why should I?'"
As we leave the luxurious confines of the Polo and Equestrian and spill onto the dusty stretch of Umm Suqeim Road, we are met with a long queue of cars. One by one we inch ahead, until the obstacle becomes apparent. An enormous open trailer with the words "camel polo" emblazoned across the back is taking up most of the road as it snakes its way back into the desert. Inside, two camels are languishing idly, presumably en route back to their desert lodgings. As they munch on hay, peering around nonchalantly at the cacophony of beeping that surrounds them, they look gloriously content. Amazing what a good sit-down can do.
Camel polo sessions are available at the Dubai Polo and Equestrian Club for groups of eight or more, priced Dh650 per person. To book a session, call the Dnata Travel Centre at 04 404 5861 or email firstname.lastname@example.org