27 November 2012

Uganda: Kakira Adds Beach Experience to Polo

When Persian soldiers discovered that hitting a ball with a stick while riding a horse kept them ready for combat around 600 BC, they had no idea that it would become quite the hit. But thousands of years down the road, polo has gained international recognition - with its mark on the Ugandan calendar getting bolder since it took root three years ago, thanks to Kakira Nile Polo Club.

On Sunday, I had my first encounter with the game. I had watched polo before on television and I must say my expectations were high as I headed for the game in Kakira.

I actually related the polo fun to that of the Royal Ascot Goats race; the glamour, entertainment and crowd. But clearly, polo isn't a sport for every Tom, Dick and Harry.

Often referred to as the sport of kings, polo in Uganda is a secret for the expatriates. Occasionally, it felt like being at an event in Europe; the choice of music, the type of food served, the crowd.

A ticket this year cost Shs 75,000. But as the title of the event - Polo Invitational - suggested, the title sponsors Nile Gold, Airtel, Citibank, Civicon, Liberty Life, Midcom and Sheraton invited guests and there were special tents for each company's guests.

But since there isn't much activity in these tents as compared to the goat races, they were mostly empty, with guests choosing to sit close to the pitch. Unlike the goats race where companies treat their guests with glove hands showering them with drinks and foods, here it is order by cash.

In fact as an invited guest by Nile Gold, my invitation entitled me to just one drink. However, for those who love their luxuries low-key, Kakira Polo grounds was an idyllic vacation spot to spend a sunny Sunday outdoors.

Amid green walls of mango trees, the atmosphere was beachy, with sugarcane husks finely crushed to provide that long strip of dazzling white 'sand' where guests relaxed on plastic chairs under the shield of huge mango trees.

For families that carried their children along, children were seen running barefoot to feel the 'sand' between their toes. There was also a big grass-thatched hut where you could spot a few familiar faces like Mondo Kagonyera, former Miss Uganda Dora Mwima and singer Cindy.

But the white sand experience was my favourite. It brought you close to the pitch that came off as a green sea -feeling the ground shake beneath my feet as six horse riders thundered past.

Unlike the goats' race, guests here pay attention to the game than pacing around interacting. Polo must be an exciting spectacle to those familiar with the basic principles of the game.

Teams score by hitting the ball through the goal posts. The direction of play is reversed after each goal is scored. The game is divided into four periods or chukkas, each seven and a half minutes long with three-minute breaks between chukkas to allow the players to switch horses, which usually get tired.

A bell will ring 30 seconds before the end of a chukka which ends either when the ball falls out of play, a penalty is conceded, or the bell is rung once more to signal the end of a chukka.

This year the overall winner was the Citibank-Civicon team which played against Midcom. And to crown the event, there was that surprising moment that got everyone on their feet with Kampala Aero Club doing that great spectacle in the air.

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