Polo has been played in South Africa for over a century. Due to the number of highly trained horses needed to play the game, it has traditionally been a sport for the well-heeled, and even now there are only about 400 registered club players in the country.
The SA Polo Association has taken steps to extend the reach of the game, however, running regular junior coaching clinics, with bursaries on offer for development players.
And “polo tourism” is making its mark, with South Africa offering a number of exciting venues – and stunning value-add packages – for lovers of the game who are ready to travel.
(By the way: if you’re under the impression that polo originated with British royalty, that it’s the exclusive preserve of white westerners, or that it’s a gentle Sunday afternoon sport enjoyed by the “gin-and-tonic brigade”, think again – see more on the sport and its history below.)
If you want a relaxing time in traditional Cape-Dutch accommodation at the coast on the Western Cape’s beautiful Garden Route, you can’t go wrong at the exclusive Kurland Estate outside Plettenberg Bay.
Kurland has raised the profile of the polo in South Africa by taking the game to a new part of the country, and because it has gone “where the money is”.
Kurland’s polo complex, on a 700-hectare estate, boasts four boarded fields, a 50-metre by 100-metre arena, fully equipped stables and veterinary clinic, a one-kilometre sand exercise track and paddocks for up to 300 horses.
Individual tuition is available from resident polo professionals; there’s also an extensive network of soft roads through forests and pastures for leisure riding.
The Kurland International test match, involving South Africa and other polo-playing countries, takes place every December.
Poloafrica, located in the beautiful Maluti Mountains of the Eastern Free State on the Uitgedacht farm, offers an exhilirating polo experience.
The facilities include two full sized polo fields, an arena polo field and a stick and ball field, all set in picturesque surroundings. The setting for the A field is one of the most spectacular in the country, at the head of a valley with a bass-filled dam at one end and mountain views at the other.
Poloafrica offers visitors a “complete polo experience” tailored to suit each individual’s requirements and skill levels. Most kit is on sale of for loan on the farm.
The Frankshoek Mountain Lodge and Polo School lies in a secluded valley in the highlands of the beautiful Eastern Free State.
Surrounded by the sandstone of the Witteberg Mountains, the Lodge features 10 rooms for a quiet getaway. However, next door is the Franshoek Polo School and it is there that the adrenaline can rise quickly. The polo ponies are available not only to play the game, but also for outrides.
Another choice is the Blueberry Park Polo School in the southern Drakensberg’s beautiful Underberg, where long-time national star Russell Watson teaches the intricacies of the game to individuals and groups. It’s even possible to purchase trained polo ponies for all standards of play through Russell. And the Drakensberg is a spectacularly scenic part of South Africa, boasting the country’s biggest concentration of private game reserves. Tel: +27 (0)33 702 0902
Oaklands Polo and Country Club, in association with the Harrismith Polo Club, offers a range of reasonably priced polo packages to suit every need and budget. It’s organised by former South African international Francis Mandy. Oaklands is situated on the Drakensberg escarpment in the eastern Free State, roughly halfway between Johannesburg and Durban.
It is both a polo club and a polo school and its facilities include a flood-lit polo arena, a boarded polo field, a polo pit/wooden horse, stabling, and pony paddocks.
Just a 40-minute drive from Cape Town, in the Paarl-Franschoek Valley, Val de Vie boasts a polo school with excellent facitilties that include two International standard polo fields, a practice field, a sand track, stick and ball practice horse, and stabling for 64 horses. John Lister, a man with experience both locally and internationally, is the polo pro.
Walker’s Polo Lodge offers polo, fishing, hunting, and wildfowling in the mountain country. It’s about a 250-kilometre drive from Durban on the KwaZulu-Natal coast. Tiny and Lynn Walker are your hosts. Tel: + (27) 39 727 3926
Jurassic Park Polo offers world class coaching from South African polo captain Selby williamson and SA coach Gavin Chaplin. Training takes place on extensive facilities, including by advanced computer analysis. Packages can also be tailor-made.
Polo-Ski Tours and Travel is a family-owned and -run travel operator that specialiases in custom building travel packages, including polo playing holidays.
The Noodsberg Polo School is nearby and an ideal place to learn for beginners and low handicappers, with former Springbok captain Stephen Erskine sharing his knowledge. At the Ottos Bluff Club, former 10-goal indoor international Joe Henderson is the teacher. Besides the polo, excursions are undertaken to game parks, the Drakensberg Mountains, and to the warm water beaches of KwaZulu-Natal.
For the viewing of top class polo, including regular test matches, two clubs stand out: The Inanda Club and The Durban Shongweni Club. Visit the respective websites and check the calendars for upcoming events.
Not a game for ‘sissies’
The image that polo conjures in many minds is one of “a gentle Sunday afternoon sport enjoyed by the gin-and-tonic brigade”.
In reality, the South African Polo Association argues, polo is one of the toughest and most demanding of sports.
“Polo is rated by insurance companies as the most dangerous contact sport in the world, with ice hockey in second position”, the association maintains. “Players have only a helmet for protection and travel at speeds of up to 40kmph on horses weighing up to half a ton. Other players use their ponies to ride each other off the line of the ball and, sadly, accidents are not uncommon.
“The skills required by a top polo player are a combination of the hand-eye co-ordination of a cricketer, the agility of a gymnast, the fitness of a footballer and the strength and courage of a rugby player – and on top of this excellent horseman.”
History of polo in South Africa
According to the SA Polo Association, the sport was brought to South Africa by British cavalry regiments garrisoned in the Eastern Cape in the late 19th century, with the country’s first recorded polo tournament taking place at King Williamstown in 1885.
The idea that polo started with British royalty, the association points out, is off the mark. Its origins lie “somewhere in Persia or China”. The abovementioned British troops learnt the game in India not long before they brought it to South Africa. The word “polo” itself comes from the Gujarati word “pulu”, meaning “ball”, and there are tapestries depicting the sport dating back to the fourth century AD.
“Far from being the exclusive preserve of white westerners, polo is still very popular in India, Pakistan, Brunei and some more remote regions reaching into Nepal (where it is played on elephants)”, the assocation says.
Many African countries, particularly Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Zambia and Zimbabwe, play polo, and the association holds annual social tours with many of them. “The curtain-raisers before each Test include players from the association’s junior coaching clinic, where a number of development players learn the game.”
Established tournaments in South Africa include the BMW International Polo Series played annually at Shongweni in KwaZulu-Natal and Inanda in Johannesburg, and the Kurland International played in Plettenburg Bay in the Western Cape every December.
The SA Polo Association was formed in 1905, and five polo provinces are affiliated to the controlling body – Highveld, East Griqualand, KwaZulu-Natal, the Free State, and the Cape. The association is affiliated to the Hurlingham Polo Association, the generally recognised world body of polo. There are 38 clubs in South Africa with about 400 registered players.