Trunk and disorderly
Words and photos by Paul Oswell
“Good morning sir! This is the 6.30am alarm call you requested!”
I don’t know how you feel about sleep. Me? On reflection, I’m for it. My eyes still glued together and my head swilling with what felt like stale treacle, I got as near “thank-you” as I could under the circumstances and, not quite refreshed after two hour’s sleep, collapsed back into bed.
Three seconds later, I was bolt upright, looking indignant for an audience of none. I hadn’t requested any kind of alarm call, let alone one four hours before I conceivably had to be anywhere. Strangely, the same thing had happened two mornings running now. I had passed the first off as a mistake, but this was…coincidence? Or something more sinister? I had my suspicions, but there was little I could do just lying there. There was nothing else for it. I would have to get up and go and watch some more elephant polo.
I’m a big believer in chaos theory, and the random event to blame for my rude awakening had happened just over 20 years earlier. Cut back to 1982, and in a bar overlooking the Cresta Run in St Moritz, Switzerland, jungle-bothering adventurer Jim Edwards is chatting with terminally posh landowner-cum-Olympic-bobsleigh-competitor James Manclark in the snow-lashed glamour capital.
Wealthy jetsetters, hopped up on pink champagne and bored with throwing themselves down glaciers and discovering new tribes, the pair concocted a scheme to do for the elephantine sporting profile what Hannibal had done for their military kudos.
What do you get if you cross upper class affectation with that peculiar brand of British derring-do and a mind to invent something splendidly pointless to pass an afternoon? The answer was blindingly obvious – and in the blink of an eye, elephant polo had rules and a governing body. It’s said that everyone remembers where they were when they heard that Elephant Polo had been invented.
Elephant polo is what you might call something of a ‘double take’ sport. Fast forward two decades, and as I mentioned to people that I was going to Thailand to watch a tournament, they invariably said it straight back to me in an incredulous voice, just to make sure they’d heard right. ELEPHANT polo?!? As if I’d said I was going to be a spectator at cat basketball or penguin darts.
Specifically, I was going to watch the fortunes of the first fully British team to compete at an international Elephant Polo championship. Even more specifically, I was going to watch a regimental side from the King’s Royal Hussars take to the field in Hua Hin, Thailand for the King’s Cup Thai Elephant Polo Association championships.
A selection of shiny, spankingly smart officers from the regiment had stepped up to the plate to represent our great nation. Yes, Britain, with its centuries old tradition of…an utter, utter lack of any connection whatsoever to elephants.
Granted, there may have been the odd colonial jumbo joyrider back in the day, but the only elephants you’re likely to see outside a zoo in this country are doing cutesy turns at Billy Smart’s Circus or being used as novelty mascots to sell car insurance. Which is why it came as no surprise to find out that, although our boys were extremely adept at horse polo, they’d never sat on anything with a trunk.
People from our green, pleasant and elephant-free land had represented the country on the Elephant Polo circuit, but mostly as interlopers on one of the international teams. This army side, though, was pure British beef. Slice them open and you’d find a Union Jack running down their insides. And if there’s one thing we Brits are great at, it’s looking like flailing idiots at obscure international sporting events.
Two months before the tournament, I was invited to enjoy a modest, seven-hour lunch with the young officers I had been assigned to shadow. It took place in a restaurant where I would usually just order the green salad and tap water before doing a runner, but the wine flowed like, well, wine, and before long we were all the best of friends.
They were so well-mannered that the word ‘gentlemanly’ could use them as an image consultant. To borrow an observation, men had followed them into battle, but only out of curiosity. Tim, for example, was so polite that you could hardly imagine him complaining about being sold a faulty television, let alone ambushing enemy troops with the steely eyes of a trained killer.
As Diana, the organiser, outlined how the tournament would progress, the prospect of playing the Mercedes Benz team from Germany provoked much jingoistic joshing, and as more drinks were ordered, spirits were high, the differences between horse and elephant polo were pooh-poohed and talk of victory was in the air. I waited until it was clear I would have no active part to play in paying the bar tab, and told them I would see them on the field of battle. Or at least, I would look at them from the refreshment tent just next to the field of battle.
And so to Thailand. Land of Smiles. And for one week only, land of over-privileged foreigners hooning around with big sticks on their national animal.
Like all the best sporting events, the various Elephant Polo championships (they also happen annually in Nepal and Sri Lanka) provide an opportunity for massive corporate sponsorship and a swig-faced drunken jolly, all thoroughly justified by a charitable bung to elephant welfare on the side.
Besides the German Mercedes team, the pan-global names of Nokia and Chivas Regal lined up, as well as exclusive Australian vineyards and Thai gem companies, their team members replete with imposing Alpha Males, and some imposing Alpha Females, all armed with the kind of corporate success that could be measured in the strength of their crushing handshakes.
Not that our boys were some kind of weedy rabble of limp-wristed Herberts. These boys had earned their stripes on the coal face of modern warfare, not pranced their way up the company ladder like some mollycoddled, pinstripe-suited Desk Johnny.
As I talked to them before their debut, I could sense raw, unchecked aggression and the unquenchable will to win. Jaws, fists and buttocks were tightly clenched, and I overheard Alex say something like, “Let’s blimey give them a bloody good crikey thrashing!” Now THAT’S fighting talk. Gentlemen. To your elephants!
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