What do you call four elephants in a Mini? Squash. What do you call eight of them charging around a field in the Nepalese jungle? Elephant polo. loaded's tusk force hops on a jumbo and takes on the toffs.
EVEN BEFORE loaded GETS INTO A BIT OF ARGY BARGY with a top ranking officer of the British Gurkhas, I know we are hideously out of our depth. Dumped 70 miles from human habitation in the heart of the 360-square-mile Royal Chitwan National Park, Nepal, and a cursory glance at the luggage tags on our fellow travellers' suitcases reveals a spectacular collection of double, treble and quadruple-barrelled names that spill nobly onto the lines normally reserved for the owner's address and country of origin. This is toff country and no mistake. A high-class resort for high rollers.
Outside, man-eating crocodiles, one-horned rhinos, Bengal tigers and leopards roam. But inside, and infinitely more scary, the place is chocca with Tobys, Tanquins, Ginnys and Jemimas. Most of them landowners (Gloucestershire in one case), Brigadiers or Major Generals. None with a chin to call their own. It's no surprise that, in such esteemed and noble company, it took loaded all of 180 minutes to upset the ruling classes.
It had all started so promisingly as well. An invitation to participate in the 17th World Elephant Polo Championships, in the shadow of the Himalayas, 75 miles south-west of Katmandu. Our base is the spectacular five-star Tiger Tops Jungle Lodge. It's all curry buffets, tea on the lawn and, if your luck's in, a spot of afternoon tiffin. No electricity, no phones, no porn channel. Instead, the tree top lodges boast solar-heated showers, two oil lights and a couple of torches. Oh, and a communal bar that stays open for as long as you stay upright. Which, let's face it, is tantamount to fighting talk in anyone's language.
As luck would have it, the previous guests in our particular allotted room had been Kate Moss and Christy Turlington, who'd been here on a fashion shoot. A quick recce under the bed for any misplaced scanties proves fruitless so, free from other distractions, we immediately hit the bar. Two hours on the juice and we're all getting along spiffingly. The aforementioned Gurkha officer even seems like a decent sort. Turns out his son reads loaded: "Yah, bladdy good mag. Got some balls. Not my sort of malarkey, you understand. Young person's caper." Turns out it's his birthday, so we duly get the champers in. Two glasses later and the old boy's completely plastered.
Talk turns to the colonies, and suddenly Colonel Blimp's heated debate with Dan the loaded snapper turns into a right royal rumble in the jungle. The Colonel's wagging his finger in Dan's face. The response, involving the words "toffee-nosed," "racist" and "arse-hole," incites more of the officer's ire. "You're facking scum, you journalists. D'you hear? Facking scum!"
The Colonel, now returning fire with a flurry of punches that disturb nothing but the air surrounding him, is forcibly shepherded to the door by his wife.
NEXT MORNING, AS WE HEAD FOR THE POLO FIELD in a battered Land Rover, the Colonel, whose face now resembles a piece of wet knitting, is full of apologies. "Sorry about last night, chaps. Bit too much of the old jungle juice. Started playing silly buggers. Won't happen again. Nuff said, eh?" Truth be told, my mind is elsewhere, on the impending match: loaded v Rest of the World on elephants. Jim Edwards, owner of the lodge and organiser of the event, informs be I've been appointed team captain. A ludicrous decision given that a) I've yet to see a normal game of polo, let alone one involving elephants; and b) I've never sat astride anything more taxing than a rocking horse. "You'll be fine," assures Jim. "The driver does all the work -- all you're doing is basically playing golf on the back of a moving elephant." Oh, right.
The whole event smacks of the English upper class having too much time on their hands, so the question remains: er, why?
"Like most great ideas, the idea of elephant polo was conceived in a bar -- at the St. Moritz tobogganing club in 1982," laughs Edwards, a 60-year-old former 'adventurer.' "A friend of mine, James Manclark, was a keen horse polo player and knew I had elephants over here as part of my tourist activities, so he said 'Why don't we give it a go?' The guy's a bloody nutter so I thought nothing of it until I got a fax here from him saying, 'I have long sticks. Get elephants ready.' Once we got on the field we realised it was a really good laugh and, if nothing else, an excuse for a bloody good party. It started off as a fun event for our friends -- I never realised we'd end up with a waiting list.
"This year we've got eight teams, including the sponsors Chivas Regal, the British Gurkhas and the regulars Tiger Tops and National Parks, who between them own all the elephants. We've had teams from Hollywood including James Coburn, Stephanie Powers and Steven Seagal. And last year Ringo Starr, his wife Barbara Bach and Billy Connolly played. Connolly turned out to be a fantastic player. Ringo was a bit miserable, though -- wouldn't even let us talk to his lovely wife. But elephants are great levellers and people usually muck in and have tremendous fun."
And what about the elephants?
The game consists of two 10-minute 'chukkas' with a 15-minute break in between. There's four elephants on a team, and only one from each side is allowed in the penalty area at any one time. An umpire patrols the pitch, sitting atop the biggest elephant in Nepal.
"He's a strong umpire," whispers Jim, "but that elephant's even tougher. Last year he decided to show who was boss, so when his mahout [driver] slid down his trunk, he put a tusk straight through him, killing him instantly, then picked him up with his trunk and threw him in the river. He was so pissed off he then charged the guy's house and smashed it to pieces."
WITH THE HIMALAYAS AS A BACKDROP, this is a majestic spectacle. Huge, lumbering, pampered beasts plodding sedately around a field. The elephants are equally impressive. James Manclark, a property developer, ex-Olympic bobsleigher and powerboat racer, is the only player ever to fall from an elephant mid-game.
"Yah, I was pwetty fortunate I didn't get twampled," he says in a Tim Nice-But-Dim voice. "The elephants won't do that on purpose but it was pwetty bloody hairy for a few moments, I can tell you. Course, now we insist that everyone is harnessed onto the elephant. Safety is damned important, particularly as we've wecently witten to the Olympic Committee to get it wecognised as an official sport."
This year's line-up of celebrities is strictly F-list: a couple of Prince Charles's lackies, a British DJ from Nepal's only FM radio station, an Indian TV weathergirl and Miss Nepal. As luck would have it, Miss Nepal, 21-year-old Poonam Ghimire, is on loaded's team. What's more, she's dead keen to be in the mag. "I'll see what I can do," I reply, with all the nonchalance of someone blissfully unaware of the bogey handing from his Ray-Bans. She's looking for a husband too. "So what can I tell our readers you look for in a partner?" "Reservedness, politeness, a heart filled with love, trust and co-operation. But definitely no beards."
When it comes to team talk, I opt for the old Sunday morning football spiel: "Right, let's get it first, look to knock it in the channels, keep it tight at the back for the first chukka, plenty of grit, no shirking -- come on, we can do this lot, they're fucking shit." I choose to ride the smallest and nippiest elephant -- a veritable Owen in a herd of Keowns. Even so, the huge pitch and roll of an elephant's stride still take me by surprise. Which makes contact between the 9ft bamboo mallet and the small ball painfully unpredictable. This match isn't a game for the polo connoisseur. In fact, the only skill on display belongs to the dung carriers, who scuttle on and use their bare hands to scoop up the huge Christmas pudding-sized piles of shite that have been deposited around the pitch. It's a sight the pitch-side commentator can't resist, exclaiming in plummy tones over the PA: "That's right chaps, clear the shit off the patch -- and that includes the loaded captain. Hwahwah!"
Among the carnage, my driver's doing his best, steering the beast by prodding his bare feet behind the elephant's ear (a huge fleshy area which looks remarkably similar to the female genitalia), but after five minutes my arm's dead and we already look a beaten side. We eventually lose only 1-0, but a semblance of pride is restored when, with just seconds remaining, an opposing and very snotty woman bears down on our open goal, whooping before she's even made contact with the ball. Owen, however, has made a tremendous late sprint back into his own area and, with a desperate lunge, I manage to whip the ball from under her mallet. Ha!
"You facking little shit!" she spits venomously.
The event is won by the Tiger Tops Tuskers, and the revelries are fairly well restrained compared with previous tournaments. "Last year a Brigadier got up on the table and set fire to his pubes," giggles one of the PR girls. Fifteen quid's worth of cocktails is enough to loosen her tongue further. Apparently 25 marriages have resulted from passions that were sparked at elephant polo. "I'm only telling you this because I'm a bit squiffy," she giggles. "But one night one of the drivers had sex with a very important lady on the back of his elephant. Another titled lady got so drunk she confided in me that she didn't like being in the jungle because, since her bowel operation, whenever she wants to poo she has to stick her hand up her vagina and push the shit out."
ACCEPTING AN INVITATION TO APPEAR ON DJ Steve Cabb's evening phone-in show on Kantipur FM, we head back to Katmandu. His brushed denims and hideous wig should have been a warning.
"The show's really taken off in the three years it's been going. At home I was a nobody but here I'm a bloody star." It transpires that Cabb, 44, was once a voice-over man for BRMB radio in Birmingham. And how it shows. He runs through what we can and can't say on air. "We've got to be careful -- the government are convinced my show is corrupting young people, all because I read out dedications and blow kisses to the kids."
Introduced on air as "two crazy English guys from loaded magazine," we start by getting him and the callers 'Aha!'-ing all over the place in true Alan Partridge fashion. Luckily he's never heard of Steve Coogan and just thinks we're "barking." The first caller asks what bands are big in Britain. A gift. Inspired by the black seal atop Cabb's head, I inform the caller, "The Weave are very big at the moment, as of course are Rug, but neither of them outsell The Dodgy Syrups." Cabb goes purple, fluffs an intro and hurriedly puts on a record. While the Aqua single is playing, I enquire as to the price of cocaine. "You can't get any --it's a western drug is coke," says Cabb. "Besides, the Nepalese are fucking peasants where drugs are concerned. I always stick to grass and dope -- it's dirt cheap and it's very decent shit indeed."
We're interrupted by a technician running into the studio, manically waving his hands in the direction of the mike. Cabb has left his mike on during the record, thus relaying our entire conversation to half a million young Nepalese, including, no doubt, a smattering of government officials. "Cab for Cabb!" hollers Dan into the mike. "Knowing us loaded, knowing you Nepal, Goodnight and aha!"
We leg it out of the studios and into the back of a bicycle-powered rickshaw that takes us to Club Dynasty, Katmandu's most rocking nightclub. Trying to blag our way in, we tell the doormen we are from loaded. Unbelievably they start aha-ing all over the shop, giving us slaps on the back and ushering us inside. Never underestimate the power of local radio. The place is heaving and the night building to a crescendo when, at 12:30, the house lights go up and a raffle ensues. Righto. Bring out the fucking tombola and let's have a real party.
Still, we get home and discover that, after getting leathered on champagne all night, buying a meal for three and a lump of dope big enough to choke a donkey, we've still got change from £20. This is God's own country and no mistake.
Next morning there's just time to visit 'Lifting Baba' -- a holy man-cum-street entertainer who lifts rocks with his penis. The more you pay him, the bigger the boulder he'll dangle. We muster £7 -- about a week's wages in Nepal -- and request the biggest rock available. Minutes later he rolls the chosen boulder into a clearing. I can't even lift it with both hands. He just wraps his robes around it, takes a firm grip on his knob (which looks like it's been through a mangle), hooks the makeshift sling on it and lifts it clear off the floor. Dan snaps away, only to run out of film three frames in. "Can you hold it a minute, mate? I'm just going to change cameras." Baba lowers his load then raises it again for more photos. He even bloody smiles. It's all down to yoga, apparently. You try it.
On the 13-hour flight home, there's plenty of time to reflect on the astonishing sights that Nepal has offered during the last week. Somewhere over Iraq, I finally make my mind up. Never mind elephants careering round a field chasing a small ball. For top-quality trunk action, Lifting Baba wins it by a decent length.