POLO AND DRAGONBOAT RACING
May 20th 2010, 23:48
According the World Sport Encyclopaedia there are 8 000 indigenous sports. Amid all the fuss about football, let’sremember some of our lesser known games. You can’t call yourself a true sportsman until you’ve tried the polishczoromaj, the Basque aizkolaris or the African zuar, If you can’t find anyone to play these exotic games with 021suggests three competitive activities that are somewhat off the beaten track and growing in popularity in Cape Town.Polo. 021 visits Val de Vie in Paarl to explore the aristocratic appeal of polo. An inscription on a stone tablet on the Silk Route between China and the West declares polo’s regal standing: “Letother people play at other things. The king of games is still the game of kings.”Passing through the gates of Val de Vie is like stepping into a charmed world. The 220 ha estate, still largelyuninhabited, seems shrouded in reverend silence. Like a stage before a performance, it waits with baited breath. Theprops are in place: the swimming pool, gym, and most notably the horse stables and polo lawns. This is thedevelopment’s draw card, intended to set it a well-heeled foot above other themed, gated communities in South Africa.Walking through Val de Vie’s cool black and white tiled pavilion, the visitor is greeted by possibly the biggest patch of grass in the Western Cape. In mid-summer, the sun shines mercilessly on this 355 x 200 m expanse of exposed turf that looks like it is hand-trimmed by Parisian hairstylists and is head-shakingly high maintenance. Completed to theexacting Hurlingham International championship standards, the green pile carpet is laser levelled to create a onedegree slope for drainage. To conserve water, the 103 automatic pop-up irrigation devices are fully computerised andspray their elegant arcs of water across the lawn in the cool of the evening.Enjoying a beer and an unsurpassed view across the majestic Wemmershoek mountains, Val de Vie’s polo manager John Lister outlines the fertilising, mowing and weeding required to keep his precious stretch of Paspalum notatum inpristine condition. The impish and irreverent sixty year old is a refreshing introduction to what is typified as an uptightand elite scene. Known affectionately as an ‘equine encyclopaedia’, the once Midlands timber farmer has led anunconventional life that has taken him from horse ranches in Argentina to his current pristine setting. He revels in hisgood fortune; ‘lucky’ is a word that often crops up in his conversation.John’s antennae constantly twitch, even when he’s unwinding after a polo match. As wiry and tightly strung as thethoroughbred horses that he manages, he’s accustomed to hard work and running his own business. During our chat,he periodically jumps up to bark out instructions to his grooms or say goodbye to a polo player, offering a personalword of encouragement to each of them. To the young blonde woman who says despondently “I kept going over thetop of the ball,” he replies, “Enjoy the frustration. It will take you somewhere.” He assures her that she’s makingprogress: “You’re becoming a playmaker with the ball.”Suddenly John leaps up to demonstrate the secret of his strong hamstrings: cigarette dangling from the side of hismouth, he wraps a leather leash in a figure of eight formation around his legs and crotch, boasting jocularly, “Never pulled a hamstring because of this.” Hamstrings, used to grip the side of your horse as it gallops, take mercilessstrain in polo. As you lean down to hit the polo ball, they are the only defence between your body and the ground,above which you travel at 60 km per hour. Th ever-present possibility of losing your grip adds an addictive adrenalinedge to polo, the oldest, fastest team sport in the world. Never tell your insurance agent that you play polo: it’s listedas one of the most dangerous games. The high-risk factor is due to the fact that 70–90% of the game is dependenton horses. As Oscar Wilde said, horses are “dangerous at both ends and damned uncomfortable in the middle.”Horses are unpredictable, but there’s no horse that John can’t ride. He started schooling them at age 11 and althoughhe’s fallen off innumerable times, remarkably he has never broken a bone.Polo playing is expensive and indisputably a pastime for the privileged. But John tells me that most South Africanpolo players are not from the wealthy mink and manure set, but rather people who are willing to make sacrifices toindulge their passion. “None of us have any money,” he whispers in my ear conspiratorially. John explains thatwhereas in Britain polo was traditionally the preserve of the aristocracy, in South Africa it was originally enjoyed byfarmers, who had horses ready at their disposal. Nowadays, it’s being taken up by businessmen with time and cashon their hands.John has been pleased by the uptake of the sport in Cape Town. Historically there have never been many poloplayers in the Cape, but the last two years have seen an increasing amount of interest, with over 25 entries (ladiesand men) for the first match of the season in October.