UKAFPA tour to South Africa

Published in News on 11 Apr 2017

The UK Armed Forces Polo Association tour to South Africa got off to a most authentically African start – within two hours of leaving Johannesburg airport the team ‘party bus’ had received a glancing blow from a spatially-unaware driver, and had been stopped by traffic cops with dubious intentions.

Undeterred, and well-stocked with biltong, the team; consisting of Major Mark Cann (RL), Major Will Todd (LD), Major Will Mawby (RY), Captain George Walker (KRH), and Second-Lieutenant Rishi Ahluwalia (LD) continued on to their first destination – Polo Africa.

The polo club double-hats as a remarkable charity, using polo as a means of creating opportunities and education for local children. The hospitality of Catherine and her Polo Africa scholars was unrivalled, and the pitch was a pleasure
to play on – perfectly flat and set against an imposing backdrop of one of the Free State’s signature flat-topped mountains.

After getting straight down to business with practice chukkas that same afternoon, we then played two games against neighbouring teams over the weekend, with Will and George also taking turns to mentor young teams of Polo Africa scholars.

Before leaving Polo Africa for our next destination – the intriguingly-named Sparta ranch – we got our first fix of military history, touring two incredible, painstakingly built and maintained private collections of militaria from throughout South Africa’s martial history; from Zulu War war assegais to modern Caspir vehicles whose design inspires our own Foxhounds and Ridgebacks.

These first 72 hours were a whirlwind of chukkas, braais (barbecue to you and I) and generous hospitality – a theme which proved to characterise our entire tour.

This was certainly the case in Sparta, hosted by Lou Van Reenen and his family, where we had our first exposure to a six-chukka match; an absolute treat which meant we certainly earned our braai that night!

The UKAFPA team split up for the match, playing in local teams headed up by 2 or 3-goal players, which proved highly educational.Pre-dinner entertainment that night consisted of Lou kindly letting us play with his small arsenal of hunting rifles and pump-action shotguns, the highlight of which was the opportunity to fire (with varying levels of success) the iconic elephant gun. The sheep grazing closest to the target were probably the safest.

The third and final stop on our Free State odyssey was the small town of Harrismith. The pace and generosity of the hosting certainly did not relent, with Andries Young whisking us from sundowner to game-drive to braai and even into enclosures with teenage lions – one of whom couldn’t resist the lure of prime British meat and helped himself to a small titbit of George’s left leg.

Tours of old Boer War sites and braais with the local veterans network gave us our fix of military history, made especially poignant by the involvement of many of our own antecedent regiments.

In amongst all that, we played a generous amount of polo, trying out horses and stick and balling on the Friday, playing chukkas on the Saturday, and playing a UKAFPA vs Harrismith game on Sunday. The locals certainly showed us how to rack up a big scoreline, but the experience was extremely good for us in the opening weeks of our season, and post-match analyses with the 3-goal umpires were both constructive and encouraging.

The tour provided an amazing opportunity for each of us to get some intensive riding, stick and balling, and playing time before we start our UK season. The generosity of the South Africans with their homes, horses, and all-round hospitality was unsurpassed, and as a team we are indebted to Mark’s hard work in planning and running the tour, giving us the opportunity to shake off the winter cobwebs in such an incredible part of the world.

We look forward to seeing our hosts this summer for the reciprocal visit.