While notions of camels may conjure up images of treks across the desert on stubborn, spitting animals most well-known for their number of humps, in Dubai, an Arabian twist on the sport of kings is a memorable and often hilarious experience. Camels, members of the dromedaries species (the native one-hump camels of the Middle East) have emerged on the polo scene in a big way.
Inspired by elephant polo played in Thailand, camel polo, practiced and played by eight riders at the Dubai Polo and Equestrian Club, debuted in 2010 with a lively 15-minute chukker. Since 2010, adventure companies specializing in Middle Eastern excursions have picked up the game and added it to their repertoire of activities for tourists.
Unlike elephants, camels are notoriously stubborn, slow on the turn and prone to wandering off. Adrian Sime, general manager of Gulf Ventures told The National in 2010, “Polo is very unusual for a camel because they have a mind of their own,” he said. “In the middle of a game they often just walk off, sit down or decide not to do anything.”
The camels are trained on the outskirts of Dubai from 6 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. The process to train new camels is grueling, according to Steve Thompson, head coach at the affiliated Dubai Polo Academy. “It’s relatively easy in companrison to train a horse,” he said. “But when you pull on the reins to make a camel turn, its head just turns around to face you. There had to be endless repetition. When the camel finally (turned and) went two degrees to the right, we (rewarded it with) a date.”
Camels, like polo ponies, can reach speeds of up to 40 mph. Holding to the adage that a camel is only as bad-tempered as it is badly treated, the animals are lovingly cared for by the riders and are washed at a well near their stables every day.
Abdul Kareem, a rider from Pakistan, said that while a firm hand was needed, particularly when directing the animal to turn, the stereotype of the camel as an aggressive creature is a myth. “I don’t think I’ve ever been bitten,” he said. Camels are only defensive when angered or threatened.
Gulf Ventures, who coordinated our camel polo experience, sent Mercedes sedans to the hotel to pick up our group of novice camel polo players. Transported outside of Dubai to a regulation-size polo field, we were greeted with cool towels and bottles of water as the sun blazed over us. The polo camels waited for us to mount, kneeling by the sidelines. Once secured and with our drivers in front of us, trainers handed us our mallets - the longest mallets we’ve ever played with on account of the height of the camels. Camel polo follows the rules of traditional polo.
We took part in two eight-player teams, with professional players responsible for driving the camel. Our job was simply hitting the ball as the camels galloped down the field, usually quite amicably. Only twice did a camel refuse to engage in the game, resulting in mass chaos as we all reached for our phones to take photos and videos.
When coordinated through Gulf Ventures, participants play on Mondays and Wednesday during the winter season (September to May), receive a camel polo jersey, soft drinks, full instruction and one hour’s worth of play time. The durable camels also lend themselves to more post-match activities than the average polo pony. To book with Gulf Ventures, visit http://www.gulfventures.com.