The tournament was held from December 6th through December 11th. There were eight teams competing in the tournament. The World Elephant Polo Tournament is a private, invitational event administered by Tiger Mountain Adventure Travel. (See press release.)
The game is played on elephants loaned by the National Parks and Tiger Tops Jungle Lodge. Each elephant is driven by its trainer (mahout) and is decorated with brightly colored chalk before each day's play.
The elephants are organized into four groups and are rotated at each halftime. Distinct advantages can be gained by virtue of the speed of the elephant or the game knowledge and skill of the mahout. The rotation evens the playing field.
The elephants are the true heroes of this sport. There were two baby elephants playing this year, along with their mothers. The babies are the fastest, but they tend to become a little unruly at times. The largest elephants are usually used for the goalie position.
During breaks in the play, the elephants are fed sugar cane and each team provides itis mahouts with soft drinks. Apparently, the teams used to provide the elephants and the mahouts beer during the breaks, but for some unfathomable reason this practice was discontinued.
Various rules have been tailored to counteract the attempts by players to capitalize on the intelligence and spirit of the polo elephants. One team taught the goalie elephant to lie down in front of the goal. Such a move is now considered a penalty. Another team taught one of the baby elephants to dribble the polo ball with his front foot. No longer permissible.
I am absolutely certain that the elephants love playing polo. I suspect that they think we humans have lost our marbles, and they're right. But they really appear to have a great time.
The largest elephant on the field is the referee elephant. The size of the beast gives the referee a good vantage point from which he can watch for dangerous play, broken sticks, balls out of bounds, elephants straying into the wrong territory, and most importantly, players slipping out of their saddles. Probably the only way a person can get hurt during the game is to fall off of the elephant. The players are keenly aware of the snugness of their harness at all times and the game is stopped immediately upon the request of a player who is starting to feel a bit insecure.
The teams are quite unique; the character of each team is certainly defined by the characters who play for it.
- The Z Ladies International team, whose theme song was "Elephants on Parade" from the Jungle Book, and who would perform a highly artistic and skillful dance routine with their polo sticks and their legs as they rode atop their elephants onto the polo pitch with "Keep it up, two, three, four..." playing over the loudspeaker.
- The J&B Rare team with their dashing red and yellow dinner jackets and their entourage of accompanying guests, including two lovely young women from England fondly given the politically enlightened title of "The Superchicks."
- The two nearly all-Nepali teams, the Tiger Tops Tuskers and the National Parks, who treated us all to a marvelous display of talent when they played a demonstration game at the end of the tournament where all of the players rode their own elephants without the assistance of the mahouts.
- The Loon's Cavalry, their dashing baby blue jerseys masking the fierce competitiveness of their nature.
- The International Mercenaries (mercenaries on vacation so the only thing they kill is their brain cells) with their wonderful Monty Python theme song "Always look on the bright side of life."
- The British Gurkha Gladiators (described by one of the announcers - from another team - as "great white officers with small brown privates") who were absolute gentlemen off the pitch but tended to turn into fearsome savages while competing.
- And of course, the Screwy Tuskers, the team that has placed last during the past three tournaments but whose members show remarkable skill, courage and optimism in their ever-improving play.
It really was a delight to play with Jean, Christy, Annie, Patty, Marya, Alf and Asha. We all took turns playing, for the most part. Except for Jean who played nearly every chukker at our insistence because she is SO good. This was the first year that Patty had gone, so she, Marya and I were all novices. Patty didn't see much action until the last game, when she had a quite successful bout with one of the J&B players, and she finished the tournament ready to come back for more.
Marya and I played goalie a few times and discovered the woes of being the goalie. It's not an easy position to play because once you've let a ball slip past you it's pretty difficult to get that gigantic beast to turn around and get back into position. But it was way fun. Annie, Christy and Jean are all very good and play well together. This is their third year playing as a team and I think it really shows.
It was wonderful having Asha, our team coordinator from Tiger Tops, play with the team this year. She is quite good and it was fun to have her playing with us instead of working so hard as she did every minute that she was not playing polo.
Alf is an excellent goalie. He wasn't able to play for the first couple of days due to an injury sustained early in the week. He was attacked by a ferocious tiger who tore a huge chunk of flesh out of his calf. Either that or he fell up the stairs. I forget.
To try to write about the tournament in any sort of chronological or even logical manner is impossible. Instead, I have set forth some of the memorable moments that I either experienced or observed. So, in no particular order, here are Laurie's vivid memories of the 1996 elephant polo tournament:
Arriving at the Meghauli airstrip after flying down from Kathmandu over the dramatically changing terrain - from steep mountain terraces of central Nepal to the bright green and yellow patchwork of the southern lowlands. I had been looking out of the window of the plane facing the village of Meghauli when the plane came in. I hadn't realized that the polo field was only a few yards from where we landed.
We walked under a banner and onto the playing field. It was mid-afternoon, the sun was hot and the sky was perfectly clear. Some local musicians were playing music, a few practicing polo players were milling around, and the local children were watching us from the sidelines. I didn't see any of those things, though. My whole field of vision was filled with huge, graceful elephants strolling across the polo field, ridden by mahouts with their bare feet and gentle voices. My heart was filled with a powerful surge of excitement at that moment that I simply had not anticipated and could probably never re-experience.
The First Ride
I was way too excited to be nervous, which was probably a good thing. Asha showed me how to mount the kneeling elephant - by standing on its foot and then stepping up on its tail which is being held by one of the assistants, then climbing onto the back. We put our feet through a rope which goes across our upper thighs, and our feet into rope stirrups - adjusted so that they're longer o the right side to help us lean over as far as possible.
My whole perspective on life changed somewhat when the elephant stood up for the first time. It took some coordination trying to figure out how to swing that long wobbly stick and hit the little polo ball. It helped when somebody showed me how to turn the stick so that I would hit the ball with the broad side of the mallet instead of the narrow side. ("Duh," I said to myself) I did find that I was able to hit the ball fairly easily, though, once we got out on the field.
My first true taste of action was when Marya stole my ball. I was inclined to let her keep it and try to find my own. My mahout had other ideas, though. He galloped (yes, elephants can gallop) me over to Marya and pushed his elephant right up against her so that Marya and I could get into quite a little tussle over that ball. We spent about five minutes trying to take the ball away from each other and then I had to quit, being totally exhausted and sweaty.
I was VERY nervous before the first game. Extremely nervous. The thought of getting out there on the pitch and playing polo with my team and playing against people who knew how to play and not knowing whether I would completely flounder out there or not. More than a little stressful. They all decided on the way over that I would play in the second chukker - which was fine. Gave me a chance to watch and think and get psyched. It looked difficult.
I played goalie in the second chukker. The first couple of times the ball came my way I had no idea what I was doing. That goalie elephant is gigantic and the stick is so long. People were yelling at me from the sidelines "hit it to the side hit it to the side" but I was lucky to be able to even hit the damn thing. And when I did hit it I hit it right to the other team and I heard Sunny's voice saying "you should have hit it to the side." [groan] At least Patty had come over and told me to keep the stick on the ground. That was helpful and I'm glad she said it.
Just before the game ended I actually managed to block the last ball and get it to Annie who hit it out and I came away feeling like I had saved a goal. My nerves kind of settled down then and I was able to relax and enjoy the rest of the game a bit.
Later it was very helpful to watch part of another game with Paul Gay who gave me much useful advice about when to charge and when to stay close to the goal. I felt like I could handle goalie again. During the second game I was really a lot more comfortable on the big goalie elephant, I didn't manage to save many goals - they scored a few against us in the first chukker.
We were playing the Tiger Tops Tuskers. I had the same mahout that I had the first day that we practiced and he was wonderful. He understands the game so well and he really helped me out a lot. At some point in the game, Jean passed a ball to me and I got control of it and I have no idea what was going on around me but I just kept control of that little ball, and my mahout kept me in exactly the right position as I hit it three or four times down the pitch until finally I realized everyone was cheering me on (for a long time they thought I was Jean and they were yelling "go Jeannie go Jeannie") and then there were the goalposts and the goal line and there was my ball and I was oblivious to the other elephants and sticks around me and just tapped the ball in the right direction and scored the first goal of the tournament for the Screwy Tuskers.
What a feeling of elation! My adrenaline was pumped up so much I thought I would never come down. It was almost better than freefall. Although we lost the game we only lost it by four points and we were all very happy about that.
My Last Bad Mood
One morning I was in a bad mood. I don't remember why, but I was. The game had been delayed because of the rogue elephant protest. When the mist lifts in Meghauli it gets very hot. Our game started after noon and I was sweltering and morose. We were playing the International Mercenaries. I had gotten myself seated on the elephant - my favorite one - and was on my way across the field.
All of a sudden I became aware of the fact that the Mercenaries' theme song was playing and I looked around me and snapped out of that mood. Forever, I think. How can a person have a care in the world when she is sitting atop her favorite jumbo, lumbering across the polo pitch, stick over her shoulder, with the snowy Himalayas against the crystal clear blue sky to the north and the colorful Nepali villagers lined up on the sidelines in front of the woods to the south and Monty Python singing o/~ Always look on the bright si-ide of life o/~ over the loudspeaker? I started whistling, much to the amusement of the mahout.
The pleasant peaceful feeling that came over my soul in that moment seems to still be here today sitting in my office back in cold dripping Washington.
Annie's oldest son, Chris, was invited to play in one of the visitor's games. There is one game played at the end of each day. Chris's team was playing the Superchicks.
Chris did quite well in the game - he's a natural. He rode one of the baby elephants and he had a great time. Of course, having that perfectionist Erickson blood in him, he thought he sucked. But he really hung in there. It was fun watching him get a taste of action.
I look forward to the day when there are three generations of Screwy Tuskers playing in the tournament.
Watching and listening to Jean Marks play elephant polo is a real treat. Jean is a fantastic player - in fact, she was voted as one of the top three women players by the Nepali teams. Jean is aggressive and motivated and she puts all of herself into the play. It is a joy to stand on the sidelines and hear Jean yelling "My ball! My ball!" as she battles it out with the opposing players.
I remember watching Jean steal the ball away from the other team on countless occasions. Once she had stolen the ball, controlled it all the way down the pitch, hit it perfectly from the sidelines - probably a 20 yard hit - only to have to watch the ball veer off to the left at the last second because of bump in the pitch, and miss the goal by about a centimeter.
The elusiveness of the goal doesn't bother Jean, though. She is a true team player and without her we would not be able to boast of holding the other teams to single digit scores against us.
Going into the finals there were three teams with identical scores, so it was decided that the placement in the finals would be determined by a shoot-off between the International Mercenaries, Loons Cavalry and the Tiger Tops Tuskers. It looked like an easy thing to do. Hit the ball from a standing elephant from 30 yards through the goalposts. Not one player scored, however, during the entire first round of 12 players. Once all of the players had made one shot, the shoot-off became a sudden death match. The first player to score was Uday Kalaan, playing for Loon's Cavalry, much to the relief of James Manclark, the Loons captain who had been standing on the sidelines chanting "miss..miss..miss.." at the opposing players for the entire duration of the shoot off.
The next person to score was Nancy Slocum. And what a shot it was. Nancy, one of the International Mercenaries, was a bit unhappy with her first shot. She had called it a "girl hit." Indeed, the Gurkha commentator was casting aspersions on Nancy's gender as she prepared to shoot, waiting for her little elephant to stop dancing around so that she could aim. He was suggesting that perhaps she didn't have the strength to hit the ball that far. Well, she showed him. A perfect shot right through the middle of the goalposts. Nancy was interviewed later by a film crew. The reporter asked her if she was an experienced elephant polo player. She answered "Oh yes, in Ohio we ride the elephants through the cornfields and practice after the harvest. Ohio elephants are much larger than Nepali elephants. And they speak English." Nancy was certainly the champion of the day.
The Tiger Tops Tuskers and the National Parks teams line up prior to playing the J&B Shield game.
Next Section: The Battle for Eighth Place
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