Playing Camel Polo in the Wild North
Text: The East African
The morning sun appeared on the horizon like a blazing gold disc, putting an instant smile on everyone’s face.
By mid-morning, the ground was bone dry and everyone from around Ol Maisor ranch in Laikipia, 20 kilometres north of Rumuruti, made a beeline to Bobong farm for the great camel day. The sun-worshipping camels, the mighty ships of the desert, would be playing polo.
Early morning, a heavy downpour had threatened to spoil the derby, leaving organisers nervous and the participants and audience doleful. If the rain persisted, it would have ended up more of a camel comedy than the serious game of polo, because the animals would be slipping all over the wet grass.
It was a relief to feel the rays of the sun once again.
Regally dressed barechested Rendille men in red quilts with their hair elaborately coiffed and fixed in place with what seems to be the latest fashion — a plastic rose — mingled with the Turkana and Samburu.
Events leading up to the camel polo included a women’s marathon and a children’s sprint. For some Turkana and Samburu women working on the ranches, it was the first time to run a marathon.
“It was not so hard,” said an elated Agnes Ikau, a Turkana woman and winner of the 21 kilometre marathon who ran barefoot. She threw her shoes away because “it got uncomfortable running in them.” It was her first marathon and she had not practised for it. “I am happy to have won something for once in my life,” she said.
Sitting with her team mates, l asked what they would like in future. “Maybe a running team so that we can compete in other places,” said Ikau, who works as a farm-hand.
Someone had organised music and the nyama-choma barbecue had been set up. Women lined up their wares for tourists to buy while others added extra entertainment by singing and dancing.
The merriment was infectious as the camels were readied for the great game, which since antiquity has been the “sport of kings.” Finally, the camels were ready with their socks and saddles and reins in place.
The polo players donned their helmets and riding boots and clambered up with their specially home made polo mallets. It was quite a scene with commands of “tu tu” to make the gangly camels sit and let the men including the two women players on the British army atop.
Facing each other, the whistle went off at 3.30pm and the camels charged for the ball. It wasn’t easy chasing a football astride a camel wielding a two-kilogramme six-foot long mallet. But within the first few minutes the home team, Bobong, had scored a goal.
The ululations from the Turkana and the Samburu were deafening. But the tide of fortune changed fast and the next two goals were scored by the British army team much to the disappointment of the locals.
Then the skies opened up again with another torrential downpour putting an end to the game — in all it took 30 minutes.
“We believe we are the first to introduce camel polo to Kenya,” said Amanda Perrett of Ol Maisor ranch, where the second polo tournament was played. The ranch sits on the immense Laikipia plateau, stretching from the eastern side of the Great Rift Valley to the foothills of Mount Kenya. Her father Jasper Evans, brought the first batch of camels this far into the interior in 1975 for tracking, milk and meat.
“We’re still very new at camel polo,” added Amanda. “At Ol Maisor, we don’t seem to have any particular rules except to score a goal and stay on your camel.”
Josephat Barabara, a jovial young Turkana in charge of training the camels, and also known as the “camel whisperer,” because he can get them to do what needs to be done said: “It doesn’t take long to train them.”
His camel is called Bhangi (marijuana smoker) because “he’s crazy,” said Barabara, giving him a pat on the sinuous neck while the animal chewed his cud nonchalantly.
Camels have a way of looking down upon men. It seems in a day or two the camels get the hang of what they are supposed to do and if you can stay put on top of one, you’re all set to play.
“Until now l had thought that all camels were just that – camels,” said Amanda. “But there’s the dromedary and the bactrian.”
The dromedary camels came to Africa from Asia. The wild bactrian (camel ferus) is listed as a new and separate species — these isolated populations have never been mixed with any other. Only 600 survive in the Gobi desert in China and 450 in the Mongolian Gobi.
In 2002, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature listed the wild camel as critically endangered. It is the eighth most endangered large mammal in the world — and the only mammal that survives on salt water – because it has little else to drink.
The idea of camel polo came from The Wild Camel Protection Foundation to raise funds and awareness about the wild bactrian camel.
“We hope to have the camel derby every year,” said Amanda. “It’s a fun way of creating awareness about camels.”