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Go Polo
Do you have to be as wealthy as a king to play polo?
Nicolas van der Leek (Nick)     Print Article 
Published 2007-05-24 06:00 (KST)   
I poked around some polo farms from the Free State to the Underberg in South Africa to find out if you needed to be a king, or at least as wealthy as one, to play polo.

I'm curious. I want to know more about polo, and in particular how to get involved as a South African. It's a sport with the same highbrow appeal as yachting or fencing, but neither of those sports seems to me to be accessible. I wonder if polo might be any different. My first stop is Franshoek farm, about 25 kilometers from Ficksberg, 14 kilometers of which is on a grinding dirt track. It's the same road to Rustler's Valley and not far from the Thaba Thabo Nature Reserve. After following a number of white signs I come upon a thatched cottage J. R. R. Tolkien might have invented. I'm instantly under an enchantment.

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Franshoek is an Anglo-African mishmash. The sandstone interiors are warm and homey. I meet Tom Cinderey, an affable Englishman with a Prince Charles like accent. He and his wife Suzi are recent partners, running the Afrikaans sounding farm with original owner Roz Evans. Rod Gutridge, Evans's son, is a legend in polo circles. He once played with Prince Charles, and is now a respected coach on the farm. Before I head out to the stables I meet Lily, a Thai pig. The resident cook specializes in Thai food, but Lily is off limits. The attention to detail at Franshoek is charming. I find a toilet seat filled with floating seashells, and a beautiful washbasin built into a sandstone shelf. Even though I don't play polo, I'm thinking of excuses to stay over.

A hobbit house at Franshoek Polo Farm, Free State (South Africa).
©2007 Nick van der Leek
While I take in the beautiful polo grounds, and wander around the stables, a British guest offers me the lowdown on polo. Each match consists of six chukkas. A chukka is like a set in tennis. There might be seven depending on a draw in the score, as occurs in tennis. A chukka is an intense effort lasting six minutes. At a professional level, a new horse is used in each chukka, but beginners might use just two or three horses for a match. A match might last an hour or more. Committees decide a player's handicap, and teams are matched with similar handicaps. The best players in the world are from Argentina, and the best players in South Africa, are from Natal.

Two days later I am on Ericsberg farm, just outside Underberg, in Natal. My host, a tall, keen farmer and polo player named Brian Hein informs me about who's who in South African polo. He plays for the strongest rated team in South Africa, and their club is the Underberg Polo Club. He has a beautiful farm, but unlike Franshoek, it's a private residence.

A polo kit doesn't come cheap.
©2007 Nick van der Leek
Over a cup of tea he enthusiastically imparts his wisdom. I'm told polo "ponies" are ex-racehorses, and therefore not ponies at all (ponies are a few hands shorter than horses). They're called ponies, as I understand, out of a sort of fondness. Gavin Chaplain is South Africa's best polo coach, according to Brian. He also makes and exports polo mallets.

Later, when Brian takes me to the field where he practices at the end of every day, he says to me, "It's all about the horses." I get inklings now that to love polo you have to love the whole atmosphere, the full spectrum of everything involving horses. And it helps if you're part of the local farming community. "All the players around here are farmers," he says. There's something artistic and mystical about it, which is why rich patrons pay so much to be part of the experience. Sponsorship is private, and a lot of money is involved. Brian tells me it can be prohibitively expensive if you don't own a farm and have to pay for the stabling of three or more horses. So if you're thinking about going polo, first make sure you have a farm, or a friend with a farm.

Jurassic Park (in the Underberg): A place for Polo.
©2007 Nick van der Leek
I leave Ericsberg farm, feeling quite envious. Imagine playing on that field with the sun setting over those magnificent mountains. What a way to end a day!

On Brian's instructions, I head south toward Swartberg. Ten kilometers from this tiny dorp, I see the sign Jurassic Park Polo. It's owned by a teammate of Brian Hein's, Selby Williamson, who has just returned from playing polo in Barbados. Once again it is a short drive over rough roads. And once again I find a lovely setting with a beautiful green field, and horses shining on it. I sit in my vehicle and gaze down at the dreamy scene below me. I'm tempted to join them, aren't you?

It's the stabling fees that can make Polo unaffordable, so having your own farm helps.
©2007 Nick van der Leek
©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Nicolas van der Leek

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