An African bacon cheeseburger

Johannesburg, South Africa

There are only a couple of flights out of Victoria Falls each day.

We left plenty of time this morning to get to the airport, check-in and make sure there wasn’t any possibility of missing ours. Right on time, a British Airways flight arrived from Johannesburg, was refueled and turned around.

Wheels were up on time, a little after 1:30 p.m., for our 2-hour flight. Picking up my backpack from the carousel, it was immediately obvious that some Zimbabwean baggage handler at Vic Falls Airport had gone searching for treasure. The straps were all undone and my lock was broken; a quick check didn’t reveal anything missing. From past experience, I’ve learned not to pack anything but clothing underneath the plane — it prevents theft and minimizes disruption in case of lost luggage. This incident only means that I’ll continue to do so.

The shuttle bus to my airport hotel, the Southern Sun, was waiting just outside of the terminal. Since my flight to Mozambique is tomorrow morning, it seemed to make more sense to overnight close by, especially since Johannesburg city center is a bit far from the airport.

My room on the fifth floor overlooked a parking lot, but was clean, quiet and had a huge bed and nice rain shower.

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The Internet access was extra (seriously?) but worth it. The afternoon and evening was spent sitting in my bathrobe, watching BBC, firing off e-mails and eating a gigantic bacon cheeseburger — the best I’ve had on this continent.

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My flight to Vilanculos, Mozambique departs tomorrow at 10:20 a.m.

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Meow, meow, meow

Port Elizabeth, South Africa

My alarm rang at 6 a.m. and after snagging a couple of home-baked muffins from the kitchen, it was time to get going. Driving east along the N2, the horizon streaked with color, the sun slowly began to rise across the Indian Ocean.

At around 7:15 a.m., my car pulled into the long driveway of Tenikwa, a wildcat reserve just outside of Plett. This morning, I’d be helping to take two of their 14-month old cheetahs, Zulu and Duma, for their exercise run. These cats, along with all of the others at Tenikwa, were born and raised here — so they are about as domesticated as wild animals can be — and serve both educational and breeding purposes.

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We put leashes on them both and started down a path. Soon, the cheetahs were showing off, jumping onto tree stumps and racing around while we struggled to keep up with them.

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Cheetahs are amazing animals, they have tremendous power and speed but only in short bursts. As they panted and rested, we had a chance to pet them; this was returned with loud purrs of approval. Their coats were surprisingly tough, not nearly as soft and smooth as they appear.

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We gave them some water and continued on our way. Suddenly, a guinea fowl unknowingly landed in front of us and Zulu took off after it, ripping his leash from the guide’s hand. Off he went into the bush — which was also beyond the reserve’s walls. About 15 minutes later, he had been located and we all breathed a sigh of relief.

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After bringing them back to their pens, we had a chance to check out some of the other cats in the park, including meercats, African wildcats, lynxes and servals. The highlights were the two awesome 3-month old cheetah cubs and a rambunctious baby leopard.

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On our way back, we visited some of the birds, including this monster vulture that liked having its belly rubbed.

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Continuing east on N2, the Bloukrans Bridge came into view; at 216 meters high, it is best known as the world’s highest bungee jump, which certainly was not for me. (The jump off point is right below where the truck is passing by.)

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My final stop of the day was Tsitsikamma National Park. Legs were still sore from yesterday’s Robberg hike, but that didn’t stop me from venturing out on a trail that crossed the Storms River by suspension bridge and terminated at a lookout point with even more spectacular views.

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A late lunch at the park restaurant — my first hamburger of the trip wasn’t half bad and held me over for the final 2 hour drive to Port Elizabeth. Hertz didn’t give me any trouble returning the car and it was a quick 10-minute taxi ride to the hotel.

PE is the East Coast’s largest city and a working port; it reminded me of Long Beach, Calif. My overpriced room at the Courtyard Hotel had views of the water, but not much else going for it.

Knowing that tomorrow I’d be up before the sun, it was an early night.

Hiking against the clock

Plettenberg Bay, South Africa

Breakfast was good this morning; the view of the sun rising over the Kynsna Lagoon, even better. Directly across from the lodge is the Featherbed, a spectacular private nature reserve, and my first stop of the day. After making my way down to the wharf and buying a ticket, we boarded a small boat for the 4-hour Featherbed Experience.

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We cruised the lagoon for about 20 minutes before unloading at the dock. A 4×4 took us up the hill from which their were some great vantage points.

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The hike down was a couple of kilometers, the trail brought us past caves and some snakes and lizards. Waiting for us was a huge buffet lunch — salads, grilled meats, veggies, dessert. It was intense and delicious.

The boat was back on shore a little before 2 p.m. On the way, I’d read about what sounded like a few amazing trails at Robberg Nature & Marine Reserve in Pletternberg Bay — or simply Plett — a beach-side town about 25 minutes away. The reserve is on a rocky peninsula with a rugged coastline of cliffs and rocks. Next thing I knew, that was where I was headed.

The 11-km hike to the Point is the most well-known; the guard at the gate told me it typically took 4 hours. He didn’t recommend setting out at this point since some of the trail ran along the coast and as the tides rose, it could erase the path. Which meant only one thing: trail jog.

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This was perhaps the first time on this trip that I was glad to be alone. I’m not sure who would have been cool, let alone enjoyed, my brisk “walk” — past inter-tidal marine pools and coastal dune fynbos. The Point was surreal: not a single other person, bright orange rocks and waves exploding into the shore line.

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Hustling back and scrambling over rocks, the parking lot came into view. Sitting in the car, shirt drenched in sweat, the clock read 4:35 p.m., exactly two-hours from when I’d set out.

Not far was the Bay Lodge, where I’m spending the night. It’s a “luxury designer hotel” with lots of modern common space, sweeping views of the ocean, and perhaps most importantly, the first fast Internet connection since Cape Town.

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Dinner was simple: two gin & tonics and a packet of cashews from the mini-bar. I’ve got to rest up. An early day awaits me tomorrow.

A surprise in Knysna Forest

Knysna, South Africa

It was a bit overcast in Swellendam this morning, not that there was much to see otherwise. After filling up my tank, it was time to hit the Garden Route. My destination: Knysna (pronounced nye-znah), a town perched between a lagoon and forests, about 2.5 hours east.

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The drive took me through Mossel Bay, George, Wilderness and Sedgefield. It couldn’t have been much simpler — and I’m continuing to learn new driving rules in South Africa (like a quick flash of the emergencies after passing as a “thank you”).

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It was sunny and warm in Knysna; my guest house, Amanzi Island Lodge, was located on Lesiure Isle, a peninsula accessible via bridge from the mainland. My standard room faced the lagoon and had sliders that opened out onto the deck. It felt like staying at a friend’s beach pad.

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I’d come to Knysna to hike — it has the largest natural forest in Southern Africa — and Helen, Amanzi’s owner, pointed me in the right direction. First, it was to a lookout that offered great views of the town, lagoon and famous Knysna Heads.

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From there, it was about a 20-minute drive to Kranschoek, a meandering 9-kilometer trail that teeters along the Indian Ocean and through the forest. With the sun out and fall colors starting to come in, it was pretty spectacular.

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The trail was quiet; coming into the thick forest, there was no noise, except for the waves crashing below. Then, suddenly, a high-pitched barking startled me. Unsure of what it was, I grabbed a big stick.

The noise continued and grew louder (warthog? wild wolves?). Glancing around, I spotted a family of baboons; three kids, mom and dad, none of whom seemed all that pleased to see me. They screeched and yelled. Mom took a couple of threatening steps toward me. I kept walking.

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Not interested in another near-death experience, it was encouraging that they didn’t pursue me. Back at the lodge, Helen told me about Mario’s, an Italian restaurant on the waterfront. An interesting take on the Caesar salad and a penne with gorgonzola, broccoli, olive oil and garlic hit the spot.

Getting into bed, light waves of the lagoon lapped the shore.

Diving with great whites

Swellendam, South Africa

The drive to Gansbaai would take no more than 90 minutes, Katherine, the owner of Akademie, told me this morning. My trip with Shark Cage Diving was leaving at 10 a.m., so promptly at 8:30 a.m., it was time for me to hit the road. Katherine’s directions there were spot on — her time estimate, not so much.

By 10 a.m., I’d still not arrived in Hermanus, the whale watching capital of the world, and the site of a Saturday morning marathon that detoured me on rural back roads. The last half hour south to Gansbaai and Danger Point was a haul; for a good portion of it, a Jeep Grand Cherokee kept on my tail. It followed me into the parking lot at nearly 11 a.m. “Brian. Brian McFarlane,” the guy said. “Captain. Don’t worry, this boat isn’t going anywhere without me.”

Apparently, the 10 a.m. departure was South African time — meaning it wouldn’t get going until 11 or so. After signing a waiver and listing my next of kin (“Have you gone diving before?” I asked the woman handling the paperwork. “Not a chance,” she replied), we watched a brief safety demonstration, were handed bright orange slickers and were next speeding away from shore into the choppy Indian Ocean.

We settled on a spot and dropped anchor. Chum, consisting of mashed tuna (“Bloody and oily attracts ‘em,” yelled one of the first mates), was tossed into the water while the cage was attached to the side of the boat. Meanwhile, a floating seal decoy and a chunk of fish were set out as bait.

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And then the wait began.

It was like fishing, Captain Brian explained, only we were fishing for great white sharks, the fiercest predator of the ocean, and instead of hooking them, we only wanted to view them in a near-death experience.

And then the wait continued.

And continued.

We attracted several sharks but none stuck around long enough for us to enter the cage. Several folks on the boat succumbed to seasickness and had to take a zodiac back to shore. Meanwhile, we moved to a different spot in pursuit of the sharks.

As the hours ticked by, we started to grow restless. Then, suddenly, after 4 hours at sea, came a shout, “SHARK!” A great white, nearly 10 feet in length, was swimming furiously around the boat. We quickly jumped into the cage as the bait brought the monster even closer.

Watching from underneath the water, the bait was pulled close to the cage and the shark forcefully lunged to grab it. In doing so, it somehow managed to wedge its snout in the bars of the cage directly in front of me. For a few seconds, it thrashed furiously to free itself, rocking the cage as we all hung on for dear life. Freed, he took off and we all surfaced with a scream.

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Terrifying.

After returning to shore, it was about a 90 minute drive through the rolling countryside to Swellendam, a small town that is the gateway to the Garden Route. Much of the way, it was just me and the road.

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My accommodation here was at Rothman Manor, which hooked me up with Suite Africa, overlooking the pool and with radiant heat in the bathroom.

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It was a quiet night. The pizza place next door served up a solid Mediterranean thin crust with olives, peppers, onions, sun dried tomatoes and chicken. After, there was time to ponder my brush with death.

Fun times.

(Some of these photos are courtesy of Flickr user coessensbart who went on the same trip. Unfortunately, it wasn’t possible for me to take any while in the cage.)

Wine tour in the Winelands

Franschoek, South Africa

It occurred to me on my walk home last night how much safety in South Africa can vary from one place to the next. While in Cape Town, my guesthouse advised me to take a taxi everywhere after dark. Yet here in sleepy Franschoek, it’s no problem.

Akademie served up a delicious breakfast this morning of homemade granola, fresh fruits and honey and scrambled eggs with hearty, whole-wheat toast. Having some food in my stomach was much necessary, especially after getting picked up by Tsiba-Tsiba and arriving at our first winery, Simonsig, around 10 a.m.

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It was a small group, just me and a couple of college kids from the States, as our guide Lukas explained the tasting process and began generously filling our glasses. We would be sampling about 40 wines today, he said, so drinking them all was not advised.

Simonsig was on the outskirts of Stellenbosch, which is this country’s second-oldest settlement, established in 1679. We started with some bubbly (the smaller and slower the bubbles, the better) and then moved onto the pinotage, a red blend that South Africa is well known for. It was dry, a little spicy, and had flavors of plum, oak and vanilla. After getting a “Tour of the Tanks,” we walked through the vineyards and loaded back into the van.

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Our next stop was Kanonkop, probably the least impressive of the day’s wineries, before heading to nearby Glen Carlou for lunch. The ten tasting wines and delicate trout entrée was matched only by the fantastic views and great weather.

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We drove back to Franschoek, stopping at my favorite of the day, Solms Delta. Established in just 2000, these wines were consistently complex and delicious and the setting dramatic. Particularly good was the Solms-Astor Cape Jazz Shiraz, a festive, lightly sweet blend that went down smooth.

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Our last stop was Moreson, the smallest winery in Franschoek. We finished the day in the same way we started, with some bubbly. In this case, it was the Blanc de Blancs, a 4-star wine.

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After some rest, it was time for dinner at Reuben’s, a brasserie on the main street. Unfortunately, although the ambience was authentic and the steak tasty, the service was atrocious. As could be imagined, waiting an hour for an entrée is not fun — especially after a long day on wine tour.

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Exhausted, my gigantic bed back at Akademie welcomed me home.

The food and wine capital of the Cape

Franschoek, South Africa

The pitter-patter of rain on the roof woke me this morning. Traveling in the shoulder season here — those weeks in between the high and low periods — does have its advantages, like fewer crowds and reduced room rates. But it comes at one substantial risk: the weather. Thus far, I’ve been lucky but knew it was only a matter of time before the odds turned against me.

There wasn’t really any need to rush so after a late breakfast (more an early lunch) and checkout from 2inn1, a taxi took me downtown to the Avis. I’d not expected much with my rental, so you could imagine my surprise when the agent pulled around a sporty new Mercedes A200. Score.

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Driving on the right side of the car and left side of the street took some time getting used to. “Empty on the outside” was the mantra — keep that passenger’s seat away from oncoming traffic. Cruising along the N1 for the 45 minute drive to the Winelands was much easier than navigating the tangle of streets and intersections in Cape Town.

Moving north, the rain cleared as the dramatic Franschoek Valley came into view. Surrounded on all sides by rugged mountain peaks, this land — with its sand-like soil and gentle breezes — is famous for producing some of the world’s best wines. Franschoek, a one-road town lined with art galleries, small boutique stores and upscale restaurants, has been described as the “food and wine capital of the Cape.”

My accommodation here was at Akademie Street Guesthouse, run by the former mayor and his wife. There are three cottages on the property, I’m staying in Vreugde, whose name means “Joy” in Afrikaan. It’s a pretty spectacular place, with its own garden and plunge pool, a great porch area with outdoor heater and an enormous bed.

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A short walk took me through Akademie’s surrounding gardens, past orange trees and the modern breakfast room attached to the main house. Afterward, strolling the quiet main drag (in stark contrast to the hustle of Cape Town), one got a sense of the history behind this town, as many of its buildings and churches from the 19th century remain unchanged.

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After a short nap, it was time for dinner at the Le Quartier Francais, whose restaurant, the Tasting Room, has been rated top 50 in the world for four consecutive years. Chef Margot Janse has also been voted South Africa’s best chef. Expectations were high.

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It’s a prix-fixe menu, where diners select 4, 6 or 8 of the dishes to “taste.” It is then up to Janse to decide in which order they will come as well as whether to serve them as a starter, entrée or dessert.

My first dish was what I’d termed a “sweet seafood sampler.” First, on the left, was a prawn wafer, essentially pureed shrimp in between a cookie. In the middle was a lemon-basil poached crayfish tail. Finally, the right side was a squid-ink marshmallow. This turned out to be the best dish of the evening; it was unexpected but the saltiness of the seafood was balanced by the sugar.

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Next up was my least favorite dish but one that just had to be tried. It was a bacon mousse (middle), a caramelized onion and caviar croquet and banana beignet, served with rocket, maple dressing and pan-fried slices of jámon. The flavors were generally quite good but the slimy texture of the bacon mousse grossed me out.

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My entrée was a piece of Magret duck breast, served with cherry quinoa, prawn, goat cheese and a black pepper jus. This heavy dish was also quite good — I’d rate it my second favorite. I’m usually not the biggest fan of duck, but the breast was not too fatty and the accompanying sides went well with it.

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Last up was dessert, a gingered piece of watermelon, chai spiced sushi served with berry and orange. This was just a bizarre dish — I’m not really sure what compelled me to order it as it doesn’t even sound very appetizing.

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All in all, dinner was about $60USD — worth it? I’d say so, if only to sample many flavors and pairings that I’d never tasted before.

Bacon mousse, anyone?

To the Cape of Good Hope and back

Cape Town, South Africa

Erin and Sarah picked me up in the Tazz a little after breakfast and we set out for Cape Point, which is the south-western most point in Africa. Along the way, we termed the weather “manic depressive” — clear, sunny skies battled soupy fog as we made our way out of Cape Town.

Our first stop was Boulders Beach, home to a (relatively) famous colony of African Penguins that have resided there since 1982. According to an informative placard, “because of their donkey-like braying call, they were previously named the Jackass Penguin.” Cute jackasses.

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Finished with the oohs and aahs, we got back in the car and continued south to the Cape of Good Hope. Suddenly, turning a corner, we came upon a herd of a dozen baboons crossing the highway. There was more cute overload as two babies played atop a stone wall.

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Once inside the park, we passed a couple of ostriches grazing and then made our way to the Cape Point lighthouse.

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From the summit, one is said to see the Atlantic Ocean in the west and the Indian Ocean in the east. Unfortunately, with the thick clouds rolling in, we saw neither.

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The Tazz took us even further south to the terminus at the Cape of Good Hope, and after patiently waiting our turn, we snapped the obligatory tourist shot.

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Returning on the west coast, we passed through the small fishing towns of Scarborough and Soetwater before arriving in Noordhoek, where we had lunch at the Food Barn, a restaurant I’d read about in the New York Times.

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All of its ingredients are sourced within 30 miles. We split a wild mushroom, fresh herb and ricotta open ravioli, served with fontina and black truffle.

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Next, the rack of lamb in an herb breaded crust with caramelized onions and black olive Tatin and rich basil jus hit the spot.

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We were stuffed from lunch so headed to Camps Bay, an upscale beach-side town on the other side of Table Mountain, and walked along the water.

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With the sun setting, we headed to the Mount Nelson Hotel, where anyone who is anyone stays when visiting CT. We hoped to spot some celebs while drinking champagne in Planet Bar.

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After a couple of drinks, we continued the night at Ginja & Shoga, which received a Top 10 Eat Out Johnny Walker Award. Unfortunately, my Johnny Walker black label was anything but — which led to a confrontation with the bartender who was blatantly filling up top shelf bottles of booze with the crap well. He eventually comped us everything.

Onward we went, hitting the bars of Long Street and staying out far too late while drinking beers and playing foosball with locals.

It doesn’t get more South African than this.

A city’s past and its future

Cape Town, South Africa

My alarm either didn’t go off or was completely ineffective this morning. Either way, after an omelet stuffed with mushrooms, peppers, onions, ham and cheese (“Just for you,” the friendly chef said), it was off for my first full day here.

It began with an exploration of Cape Town’s past at the District Six Museum, which focuses on the forcible removal of an entire neighborhood following the Group Areas Act of 1950. The exhibits provided background on how different this city once was — particularly moving was a map that residents had signed to indicate the location of their past residences.

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After nearly bumping into several pedestrians on Long Street, it came to my attention that not only do South Africans drive on the left side of the street — they also walk on it. This knowledge was helpful for the remainder of my trip down to the V & A Waterfront, a recently revitalized area on the Atlantic Ocean.

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My boat to Robben Island left at 1 p.m. The island’s name is Dutch for “seals,” thousands of which once called it home. It’s more notorious, however, for the maximum security prison that once housed political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, during apartheid. Unsurprisingly, with such a history, it’s a stark, terrible and powerful place.

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Our guide was a former political prisoner, who spent five years locked up on fabricated charges of sabotage. He shared stories of a truly difficult life here before bringing us to the cell of the island’s most famous resident, Mandela.

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A 30-minute boat ride brought me back to shore. From there, the walk back was long but my timing was perfect. As the cable car brought me to the top of iconic Table Mountain, the sun slowly set and clouds rolled across the water.

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Dinner with Erin and Sarah was at Jardine, consistently rated one of the top restaurants in South Africa. We had trouble trying to pick from an overwhelming menu and our waiter walked us through the dishes in delicious detail.

Then, a final decision was made. First, appetizer: An aubergine (eggplant) and zucchini stuffed baby calamari with a carrot cake pureé and spiced bread crumbs (delicious).

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Being in Africa, it was only appropriate that I order the seared wildebeest loin with celeriac pureé, braised cabbage and pomme parmentier. The meat tasted game-y but was tender and complemented the celeriac, which had a mashed potato texture.

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For dessert, we ordered a half hour in advance and were treated to a grand marnier soufflé flambé, a sweet and fiery finish.

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In what was a fitting end to the day, dinner showcased how far this city has come — and what its future may hold.

Arrival in the Mother City

Cape Town, South Africa

“You ready for your 15-hour flight?” the TSA rep asked me at the JFK security checkpoint. It sounded ominous — especially given the fact that I’d woken up at 5 a.m. this morning and had already been traveling for 5-hours. “You bet,” was my weak response.

The Airline Gods were looking down on me though. Checking in several hours before my scheduled flight offered one priceless advantage: the last emergency exit seat on a packed 777 airplane. Stretching my legs out with a good four feet of legroom, the woman sitting across from me looked longingly. “Poor man’s first class,” she said. “You bet,” was my more confident reply.

Nearly 15 hours and 7,967 miles later, we touched down in the sprawling metropolis of Johannesburg. After a quick push through customs, it was off to the domestic terminal to catch the 2-hour flight to Cape Town. Needless to say, it was a relief to arrive there at 1:10 p.m. local time, about 28 hours after my departure from D.C. yesterday.

My friend Erin, and her roommate Sarah, met me at the airport in the Tazz, their amazing foam-green car. The sky was a vibrant blue and the sun was shining when we got to 2inn1, my guesthouse in Oranjezicht, an upscale residential neighborhood just north of the city center.

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Since it wasn’t full, the friendly German owners upgraded me to a luxury room, which with its modern décor, private deck and views of Table Mountain, was right up my alley.

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Walking around after, it was easy to see why Cape Town is cited as a great first city to transition into the African continent. At times, it felt no different than any other place; but, electric fences running along the top of high walls and security guards watching over parked cars provided a reminder of what the reality is like here.

Dinner was at Nova, whose chef, Richard Carstens, has won international acclaim and praise for his inventive cuisine. Each item on the “deconstructed” menu was simply a word with a list of a few of the other ingredients.

My “Spinach” appetizer was a salad with goat cheese, pomegranate, artichoke and mustard. The “Rib Eye” was dusted in coriander and cooked a perfect medium, served over salted apricots and Japanese curry infused mashed potatoes. Perhaps most interesting was the intermediary palette cleanser — a water crest and melon sorbet. Strange but surprisingly delicious.

Exhaustion and a full belly meant no dessert.

It was time for some sleep.