I’ve already written about the madness of Dubai in Part Three: The Good, The Bad-Ass and the Exquisite and the gluttony in Part Four: Five Hotel Restaurants to Try in Dubai, but I couldn’t go any further without writing about one of the weirdest experiences of my life, which happened, yep, you’ve guessed it, in Dubai.
It turns out this Emirate city isn’t just the capital of excess, it’s the mayor of crazy town too, as on the third day of my visit I found myself wedged into a two-man saddle on the back of a prepped and preened camel with a giant stick in my hand and the words of an instructor ringing in my helmet-covered ears: “Don’t let go of the saddle…or the mallet…and keep your eye on the ball…and hit it!” Right. So away we went….
“Hit it! Hit it!” My jockey, Riaz, pleaded with me as I swung my arms backwards, shoulder screaming in protest and biceps like malnourished grapes straining to bring the leaden stick downwards onto the demon of a ball that had eluded me all morning.
“Ahhhhhrggh.” Out gurgled an underwhelming battle cry as the hammer connected with a thunk, shunting the ball all of two, spectacular feet across the pitch. Unfortunately, the thunk was swiftly followed by a crunch as, unable to control to momentum of the swing, I thwacked my mount, Moussiah, around the ankles. She turned her long, elegant neck towards me, swivelled her regal head and batted eyelashes like spider’s legs in mild frustration.
“Idiot.” Her liquid brown eyes said. “Bugger.” I said. Who knew a game of camel polo could be so difficult to master?
At the Dubai Polo & Equestrian Club there’s a real grassroots sport on the up. In fact, this small but prestigious club-cum-restaurant-cum-spa is the only place in the world where you can try your hand, no matter how inexpertly, at camel polo. Apparently it’s popular for corporate days out and I can see why – there’s nothing quite like getting rid of some lingering office rage by ‘accidently’ hitting a colleague with a seven-foot stick.
Camels, with their reputation for short tempers, bumpy rides and indiscriminate spitting, are worlds away from the sort of sleek polo ponies that you see Princes William and Harry cantering around on at Ascot Park, but these specially (and patiently) trained camels are a different breed.
It’s a rare day that you’re out groomed by a camel, but against these high class beasts, with their once-a-day shampoos, massages and expertly brushed honey-coloured coats, let’s just say that I didn’t fancy my chances in a beauty contest.
The morning haze was just lifting as the white-hot, Dubai sunshine burnt through the clouds, turning the temperature up to a muggy 25 degrees when I, and five other journalists, descended on the polo club on the outskirts of Dubai. We were met by a smiling row of slender men in harlequin shirts and alarmingly tight, white trousers who proceeded to fit us with hats, chaps and sticks and, before the ink on our safety waiver had even dried, we were released onto the pitch to practice whacking polo balls.
None of us had ever lifted a polo stick before, but after twenty minutes of concentrated swinging we were all managing to successfully aim the white cricket balls at the instructor’s knees. After a few near misses he decided that we were ready for the real thing and handed us the camel polo sticks, which were, sadly for us and luckily for his shins, three times longer, ten times heavier and near on impossible to wield. To put it in perspective, if you played camel polo regularly you’d soon develop one single, hulked arm like Rafa Nadal.
It was greens versus blues as we mounted up and trotted *cough*lurched*cough* jockeys in the front of the heavily padded saddles for the first skirmish. There’s a switch in me that flicks when I take part in team sports. It’s an embarrassing combination of bloodlust, terror and ineptitude that generally results in me shouting a lot, psyching myself out and missing all scoring opportunities. In short: the worst player in the world. As soon as that ball came into play I started bellowing at my mild-mannered, fifty-something-year-old Sunday newspaper teammates like a mounted Attila the Hun, although a less intimidating version in Velcro chaps and an oversized, tally ho helmet.
It was carnage in slow motion on the field as we took massive wind up swings only to give the ball a light stroke rather than a smack. As the midday sun started scorching the grass, our jockeys began to get cross, with Riaz making a few underhand swipes at opposing team’s jockeys, catching one with a playful slap around the ear as a polite warning to get out of the scrum and let the blue team get on the scoreboard. All in the spirit of the game, I’m sure.
One of the camels accidently kicked the ball through the posts before I had even managed to score the first of my two goals but, eventually, amid the misses and howls of irritation, both teams managed to win two rounds of three scuffles. The match finished in an amicable tie, although there were mutterings of match fixing, which would make sense considering that a couple of the jockey’s on the green team seemed intent on keeping their increasingly irate players out of the action.
Once it was all over there was just enough time to watch our jockeys in action – and to realise just how rubbish we’d been in comparison to the professionals – before we were sent packing back to our hotel with our swanky polo shirts as a memento.
It was only when we walked back into the foyer of our hotel that I realised what we must look like – six dishevelled people, me in jodhpurs and boots, and all wearing official-looking shirts complete with the club’s camel polo badge.
A girl to my right clocked us, did a double take, eyes wandering down to the badge and up again to look, suspiciously at my face before she fiddled with her camera, contemplating if it was worth her time to capture what quite possibly could be the Dubai Camel Polo Team. At the last minute she decided against it and we strolled straight past and back to our rooms to nurse our camel thighs and polo shoulders.
The average hotel guest in Dubai is clearly wise, very wise.
Gulf Ventures can organise city transfers, half day city tours and a camel polo experience like the one I tried. Visit www.gulfadventures.com to book or for more information.