Elephant Polo! As a Nepali, I had only heard about it. I was lucky to be able to attend the World Elephant Polo Championship this year, at the Tiger Tops Karnali Lodge.
Although I wouldn’t call myself a world traveller but I do have a list of countries I have travelled, to give me a basic idea of the vast sights the world has to offer, and how little time we have, to be able to see it all! Hence, I developed the ‘cliché’ 100 things to do before I die list. Elephant Polo in Nepal should definitely be in all of your list.
I reached the camp on the third day after an hour’s flight from Kathmandu, and a bumpy two hour drive from Nepalgunj airport to the Tiger Tops Karnali lodge in sheer anticipation. I must say the mood amongst the guests was set. Well, literally after few hours of interesting conversation, I felt myself as a part of this most eclectic, charming and highly entertaining group of people from all over the world. It was as if I had stepped into the most interesting travel journal of all time. And they had all come for the love of the sport, and Tiger Tops. Some have been coming to Nepal even before I was born. What is it that brings them back? This question was answered over the next three days.
I am grateful for such travellers, as their generousity was portrayed that night at an entertaining auction, proceeds of which were donated to various charity organisations in Nepal. At dinner, I was completely surprised by all the delicious cuisine presented. I wouldn’t call myself an avid vegetable eater, but the sheer freshness presented in the lightly steamed vegetables was beyond anything my mind could comprehend. The emergency ‘stash’ of junk food I had carried, remained untouched.
The dinners always ended with a brilliant and witty recap of all that happened during the day, along with the introduction and a warm welcome to those who arrived that day, conducted by the witty Peter Prentice. These little gestures add so much more to the entire experience. The next day was filled with various preliminary elephant polo matches, leading to the final in two days. Elephant polo can’t be enjoyed better than by actually witnessing it, and better yet, playing it! The sheer juxtaposition of the players’ determination, passion and energy, compared to the elephants’ calm, cool movements, and completely lovable nature made it a treat for the mind! Stories of people there and their travels, the dissection of each strategic move of the match before, and fun filled conversations made the day.
Bicycle polo too
Along with the World Elephant Polo Championship, a side tournament of bicycle polo began that day, which as a player, I would say, ‘looks more dangerous than it actually is’, and ‘way more fun than it seems’. After the day was over, sitting under a tent on the polo grounds, I rejoiced on the fact that i was too happy.
Sitting in warm winter sun, looking at elephants roll by, people laughing, playing, talking, sharing; this is what brings people back to Nepal. The evening ended with the camp driving to the beach alongside the Karnali river. Tiger Tops’ management and hospitality is something all such business in Nepal should aspire to achieve. Candle lights illuminated the beautiful surroundings of the beach camp with a breath taking sunset view.
After the semifinal games of elephant polo, the bicycle polo games were held to determine the winner. It was nice to see that villagers from near and far came throughout the day to observe this peculiar sporting event. Highly entertained, the crowd would burst out into the loudest accolades whilst when two bicycles collided and fell on the ground. The brakes nonfunctional during games was a safety precaution, apparently with the brakes, players tend to go faster, trusting the brakes to work at the opportune moment, and end up in a complete flip. The team I was in named ‘The South African Africans’ were the proud winners of the tournament, though due credit must be given to the hero of our team Sam Browne, who drove us to victory.
All of us were eager for the night’s dinner, as it was to be held in the elephant camp, with the elephants, the stars of the show. The entire walkway was lit with hundreds of candles, the sight was more overwhelming when the rows of elephant shelters with them in it revealed themselves. The dinner table was one long table opposite the elephants in a single row. I have never experienced a more breathtaking sit down dinner in my life before. The locals had a fire roaring on one side with joyous music and dancing to entertain the enamoured guests. The night concluded, with everyone, eager, yet a little sad, that the next day was to be the last.
The grand finale
The final day kicked off with all the necessary polo matches in the process before finals. After an hour’s wait for the chief guest, the major sponsor of the whole event and a team, the EFG Bank, the game to decide the second and third place was played. An exhibition bicycle polo game was played between the team ‘Tigresses’ and their husbands. The spirit in which the players played that game was evident in the loud bursts of laughter that erupted amongst all the audience whenever a fall would morph itself into a hilarious play of gestures and antics between players, and the referee.
After a nail biting final of the elephant polo, the EFG Bank team won the tournament. The prize giving ceremony couldn’t have been organised better with players, elephants, and their ‘mahouts’ (the elephant riders), being acknowledged and presented with their respective awards. With all the games over, people were ready to enjoy the final dinner and dance. We danced away the night in merriment. The next day, before we knew, we were on our flights back to Kathmandu.
What is Elephant Polo?
Besides the sport, the animals and the location, for me it was the people that made it. The brilliant management at Tiger Tops, their staff, their cooks, brilliant housekeeping, the World Elephant Polo Association and all the fantastic people within that organisation, and the sponsors, that made this event. But most of all for me, the people who attended, I will miss you all, I will remember you and I will be eternally grateful to you all for showing me that life is just so much better when you are just…. HAPPY!
(The author is an architect and owner of ‘Varun Rana Design Studio’)