Image: supplied.

The travelling circus that is the World Sevens Series is on the move. It’s on to San Diego and this time, thanks to the Springboks’ main sponsor Sasol, a few South African journalists have managed to get their passports stamped for the junket. 

There is much to look forward to. By the end of the tournament I would have been on assignment with our national rugby teams to every continent. The week is, however, not just about the rugby.

Given San Diego’s proximity to the southern border, a quick trip to Tijuana on the Mexican side has its own allure. Fellow hack Brenden Nel (or, as we call him, Baksteen or Steen, because he once masqueraded as a prop with that name) has suggested we take in Tijuana and a sticker in our passports was supposed to smooth our path. Tijuana has always been portrayed as a gritty border town in which anything goes. 

Despite the orange man in the White House, it remains the busiest border crossing in the world, a spectacle we are keen to observe. Our route to San Diego takes us through Washington’s Dulles International, where we are to connect for our onward journey to what is then still awkwardly known as Lindbergh Field in San Diego. (Racist and anti-Semitic views have seen the pioneering aviator’s legacy nosedive.)

In transit I buy two newspapers. My blood turns cold as I turn to page three of USA Today. In the main image headless bodies dangle from a bridge in Tijuana. That’s bad enough, but the fact that these are policemen drives home the potential peril we are headed for a few days later. 

A month earlier, Mexican president Felipe Calderó* had beefed up his war on the city’s drug lords by deploying the army. The cartels lashed out, and beheading cops before dangling them from bridges was supposed to convey a certain message. Still, Steen and I are determined to cross the border. For heaven’s sake, we live in Gauteng - nothing scares us, we think.

Our hotel is in San Diego’s vibey and architecturally charming Gaslamp Quarter. The streets are lined with restored nineteenth-century buildings that house restaurants, coffee shops, nightclubs and bars. Steen and I are on the move. We are on foot, trying to shake what we believe is jet lag. It’s mid- afternoon and time for a late lunch. At a busy intersection we get the green light, but Steen is rooted to the spot. 

His gaze is set diagonally to the left and as I’m about to berate him I recognise the sign that has made his jaw drop. There’s a Hooters across the street. “We can have a snack there,” I say, pointing in the hope of snapping his trance. He enthusiastically follows as we cross the street. They say that everything is bigger in America. It’s pointless to argue the contrary. The size of those Hooters wings will forever haunt me.

Before the tournament, which is to prove a disappointment for the Blitzbokke, kicks off, we want to venture south of the border. We rather foolishly hail a taxi from the Marriott. Foolish because the 30-kilometre taxi ride is going to cost us a fair bit, but it’s going to be quicker than taking the trolley and time is against us. So we walk into Tijuana but not before meeting the demand of Mexican border officials of $30 each. 

The visas in our passports apparently mean nothing. On foot there isn’t much to see of a part of town that seems to be stuck in the mid-1970s. We see no cops dangling from bridges and in Don Julio (at $6 a shot) we strike a deep and enduring friendship. We head back but not before a mariachi band stereotypically refuses to take “no” or even “NO!” for an answer.

Before we cross the border we are ordered aside by Mexican officials. Routine questions about what we are doing in Mexico follow as well as a body search, which involves us standing facing a wall, legs apart. We cross the border unscathed.

Our hotel is right next to Petco Park where the Sevens tournament is being played so the only other excursion that warrants a taxi ride is to Miramar Air Station, 20 kilometres north of the city. Miramar was the setting for the 1986 box-office hit Top Gun, the movie with a catchy soundtrack in which a hotshot naval aviator (Tom Cruise) takes his instructor’s (Kelly McGillis) breath away. Or was it the other way round? 

We are heading there on invitation from the team who sets off about 45 minutes before we do. The taxi driver stops well short of the gate. He is reluctant to have his car searched so we get out. Steen explains to a rotund guard why we are there. A liaison officer is supposed to smooth our passage into the base, but isn’t immediately available on his mobile phone. 

We are allowed in and although we are on foot are pointed to a holding area for vehicles, and it is here that Steen establishes contact with our man on the inside. The liaison officer, however, needs to speak to the guard and Steen needs to hand his phone over to her. 

Steen, with as much urgency as when he crossed the road to Hooters days earlier, breaks into a trot as he heads back towards the gate. I think his indecent haste bold. Running, or even trotting to the gate of an American air force base, irrespective of the side you are approaching from, is foolhardy, even if five-or so years have passed since 9/11.

Steen would later explain that international roaming costs and his modest salary necessitated his urgency in the moment. As he rounds the corner of the building from which the officers operate first a firm, then hysterical voice cuts through the air. “STOP! STOP right there. I’m ordering you to stop. STOP! On your knees. On your knees!” I recognise the voice as that of the rotund guard.

By then I have positioned myself to catch a view of what is unfolding. “I’m ordering you to get on your knees,” she commands. Steen is trying to get a word in but her booming voice - not to mention the firearm she is pointing at him from about five metres - holds sway. Steen is on his knees and then has to lie face down before he is ordered to let go of his phone. 

Thankfully, he complies. He tries to explain that he is merely trying to hand over the phone. Another guard eventually picks up the device and has a short conversation with the liaison officer. Steen is finally ordered to his feet and his phone handed back. We are allowed to proceed. As we step out of the vehicle that picked us up at the gate the gravity of what has just happened sinks in. 

The signs around the base are loud and clear: “Anyone taking photographs without permission will be met with deadly force.” It is not lost on me that we survived Tijuana only for Steen to almost meet deadly force in one of the safest places on the west coast of North America. As 1980s pop idol Kenny Loggins put it in Top Gun, this is the “highway to the danger zone”.

Winging It: On tour with the Boks by Liam Del Carme is published by Jacana Media. Available in all good bookstores. Recommended retail price: R240.

About the author:

Liam Del Carme is a seasoned journalist with 27 years in the industry. Liam has worked for newspapers such as the Cape Argus, the Sunday Independent, ThisDay, Beeld and the Sunday Times. 

He is also a TV pundit. Apart from his deep love for sport, he enjoys cooking, showing his competitive side in pub quizzes and travelling. He lives with his partner Marcelle Gordon and their two dogs in Johannesburg.

The Saturday Star