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The Big 10 in Africa

Famous polo destinations in Africa are looking back on a long tradition, some of them are up and coming. Which are the Top 10 polo tournaments on the African continent? And how did these events develop? Let’s see… By Masedi Molosiwa

The mere mention of Africa is an unfettered invitation for nostal-gic stories and sometimes embellished accounts of safari trips to see exotic animals. A safari trip is without doubt a bucket list of sorts for many across the world. This should come as no surprise because Africa is after all the world’s number one safari destination. Europeans comprising of French, British, Germans and Portuguese citizens together with Americans constitute by far the biggest tourists to the east, central and southern regions of Africa. And the reason for this is rather simple. Africa is endowed with a staggering variety of biomes that contribute to the breathtaking abundance of wildlife that is on offer. For instance, Chobe National Park which lies between the Chobe River and the Okavango Delta in the north-eastern Botswana is home to the biggest concentration of elephants in the world – all 70 000 of them at the last count.

For someone who has never been on safari, what is on offer is an enticing opportunity to be starry-eyed and be captivated by embellished stories. Invariably, exotic animals of Africa will be about the Big Five; the towering African elephant, the bulky rhinoceros, the horned buffalo, the majestic African lion and the evasive African leopard. The creatures of beauty are named the Big Five by big-game hunters because they are the most difficult animals to hunt on foot. You can be assured of some beguiling tales peppered with some near-death inducing experience on a lion track in the dark of night. It isn’t the visitors alone to Africa who are enchanted by the Big Five. They are so revered that they are featured in denominations of the South African rand banknotes. Everyone is enchanted.

Polo enthusiasts on the other hand have an enchanting discovery awaiting them to make in the growing polo fixtures across Africa. Polo is played in over 17 countries in Africa namely; Gambia, Egypt, Ghana, Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Malawi, Benin, Botswana, Nigeria, Lesotho, Uganda, Zambia, Tanzania Kenya, Sudan and Morocco. What is not in doubt is that polo is gaining increasing popularity as a premier spectator sport across the continent. Polo might be a sport synonymous with luxury, but that doesn’t mean that it is only the well-heeled that have come to love the game. In much the same as there are way more than five animals in Africa, the same holds true for polo in Africa where there is an array of polo tournaments to visit as a way to discover magical Africa – the Big Ten in Polo.

The contemporary polo scene is a far cry from October 1874 when the Cape Mounted Rifles played against the 75th Infantry of the Line Regiment in the first recorded polo match in Africa at the Parade Ground in Cape Town, South Africa. Forty years later in 1914 the British Naval Officers played polo on an air strip that was to become Lagos Polo Club in Nigeria. Three years later, in 1917 was founded the oldest polo club in East Africa in Nairobi. These three matches have come to define the tapestry of continental polo in Africa. It follows, for historical reasons that South Africa has the most developed infrastructure. The next country is Nigeria that is followed by Kenya. These three countries comprise of the top tier in polo across the continent.

The Big Ten, is much like the Big Five safari. Only double the pleasure where a discerning tourist would know that only a handful of safari visitors are ever fortunate enough to be able to see all the wild animals in one game drive. To see the Big Ten also requires much more than one visitation. This is not simply because the continent is vast and the polo seasons vary across the continent. It will take up to eleven months, almost a year to work through them.

A tour of the continental fixture – the Big Ten comprises of the AON Inanda International Polo, Cell C Inanda Africa Cup, Access Bank UNICEF Charity Shield, Kenya International Polo, Nedbank International Polo, Africa Polo Open, African Patron’s Cup, Brightwater Polo, Lagos International Polo and Veuve Clicquot Cape Town Masters hosted from Johannesburg / South Africa to Kaduna / Nigeria  to Nairobi 7 Kenya to Lagos / Nigeria and Cape Town / South Africa.

The itinerary of The Big Ten would have visitors first arriving in Johannesburg, South Africa. Many first-time visitors to Johannesburg are always pleasantly surprised to discover a cosmopolitan city abundant in richness and diversity. What is even more fascinating about Johannesburg is that it is the only major city that was established away from a river. The first match in touring the Big Ten would have the keen explorer to polo arrive in May to the Aon Inanda International Polo set in the heart of Africa’s economic hub at the Inanda Polo Club in Sandton. The match harks back to the 1950’s when South Africa and Argentina had a working relationship with Lalor playing the Goodmans at Inanda and later with the Araya playing with Coronel Suarez in the 1970’s in South Africa.

The annual match is between a team of the highest handicapped players from South Africa taking on polo players from the legendary Lalor and Ayara families of Argentina. The two families are reputed to be amongst the most eminent polo dynasties in Argentina. The Lalors are prominent figures in Argentina have contributed three presidents of the Argentina Polo Association and have five members listed in Dr. Laffaye’s Polo Encyclopedia. The match is now held under the patronage of the Ambassador of Argentina in South Africa and coincides with the Argentine celebration of Revolution Day, marking the anniversary of the independent government in Buenos Aires. The players representing Argentina in the 2019 contest comprised of Diego Araya (Captain) (7 goal), Juan Augustin Garcia Grossi (7 goal), Ernesto Juan Lalor (5 goal),  Benjamin Carlos Araya Snr (6 goal). The South African team was made up of – Tom Paul de Bruin (Captain) (7 goal), Lance Watson (6 goal), Gareth Evans (6 goal) and David Evans (5 goal). The 2019 rated as the pinnacle of polo played in Africa because of the 25-goal level – the highest level of polo that has ever been played in Africa.

A few weeks later in mid-June, is the Cell C Inanda Africa Cup that is also hosted at the Inanda Polo Club. Inanda Polo Club is unique for being one of the few polo clubs in the world that is located in the middle of the city providing full amenities. The tournament is a knockout format between teams from many polo playing countries in Africa. To date, players from countries such as Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe have participated in the closely contested tournament. Polo teams participate in the knock-out tournament. Guests include a mix of celebrities, media personalities and influencers.

We then head north to Kaduna State in northern-Nigeria to attend the Access Bank UNICEF Charity Shield tournament. The tournament is held at Fifth Chukker Polo and Country Club in Kaduna. Fifth Chukker it started off as a cattle ranch and was acquired by one of the most prominent polo patrons and players – Alhaji Adamu Atta. The extent of financial commitment to upgrade the facility has been staggering as it has required investment in the construction of roads, electricity and provision of running water. Fifth Chukker is without doubt the number one polo destination in Nigeria with the tournaments attracting more international attendees than any other sporting tournaments in Nigeria. The facility comprises of three professional polo fields and over four hundred thoroughbred polo ponies stabled in a three thousand hectare resort.

The tournament consists of up to 15 teams with players from Argentina, South Africa and top Nigerian players with three finals in the low, medium and high-goal categories. It is attended by high ranking government dignitaries and business personalities. A ten million naira donation by Access Bank was handed over to UNICEF. It was inaugurated in 2003 as the first ever charity polo tournament geared to alleviate the plight of vulnerable children. The funds are used to support projects in aid of the education and well-being of vulnerable children in the Kaduna.

Later on, the intrepid traveler will fly east to Kenya in September to attend the Kenya International Polo Tournament in September. The tournament attracts some of the best polo players from South Africa and Argentina who are matched with local players. The format of the tournament mixes top Kenyan polo players with international players to make up high-goal teams. That in turn provides the best playing polo possible in east Africa. 

The trip will then continue down south to where you started in Johannesburg to the Inanda Polo Club for the Nedbank International Polo also in September. The Nedbank International Polo is the longest running polo test match with a history of over 30 years. South Africa has the most developed infrastructure in polo which has resulted in a higher number of players. The South African national polo team has played against Chile, Australia, India, United States of America and United Kingdom national teams.

You would stay over in Johannesburg to attend the Africa Polo Open in October, billed Africa’s Grandest Polo Tournament. Africa Polo Open is a continental match that pits the South African national polo team against another African polo playing countries. In 2017, an 11-goal South African team took on the Kenyan polo national team at the expansive polo field overlooking the picturesque Magalies mountain in the background, the oldest mountains in the world, almost 100 times older than Everest. In 2018, for the first time ever, South Africa duelled continental rivals Nigeria in a 12 goal match. 

The return leg to Nigeria will become necessary to attend the African Patron’s Cup in late October and early November. The African Patron’s Cup is a high goal tournament comprising of patrons with local players and international professional players from Argentina and South Africa. Patrons in Nigeria have a more central role in the development and increasing role than anywhere else in Africa. The one postulation is that it has much to do with Nigeria’s post-colonial transition and the enduring role of the military.

A visit to Brightwater Polo a privately owned and fully self-managed ranch located in the heart of Ibeju Lekki in the newly developed Lekki Freetrade Zone merit a visit because it stands apart as an offering in polo in Africa. Brightwater has organized numerous polo test matches, special cups and inhouse tournaments over the past three years to a select crowd. It has established itself as preferred location for the elite polo lover. Brightwater Polo Ranch has invited world renowned international polo professionals from the United Kingdom and Argentina to play alongside passionate Nigerian Patrons for a medium-goal league style tournament over two weekends.

The Lagos International Polo Tournament is held in February over two weekends. As many as thirty-four teams compete for four main cups, namely: Silver Cup, Open Cup, Low Cup and Majekodunmi Cup. In the first opening week, teams contest for the Silver Cup battle. The Open Cup. The most coveted prize in Nigerian polo is the Majekdunmi that was presented to the club in 1962 by then Administrator of Western Region Dr. Moses Majekodunmi.

Finally, there is the Veuve Clicquot Masters Polo Cape Town at the picturesque Val de Vie Estate in early March. The majestic field is set against the spectacular backdrop of the Paarl-Franschhoek mountains. Val de Vie would win hands down the cup for the most beautiful polo setting in Africa. The stylish social event marks the beginning of the South African polo season – the weather is always sublime, the guests glamorous and, as always, there will be plenty of equine action. 

The beauty of the Big Ten is that it really does not matter where to start or the order that your schedule permits you to take up. What is encouraged however is that you attend at least one in each country because that will leave you with a nuanced sense of the polo season.

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