S: Oprah's Ultimate Australian Adventure - December 2010
BC: We are all visitors to this time, this place. We are just passing through. Our purpose here is to observe, to learn, to grow, to love... and then we return home. Australian Aboriginal Proverb
1: For an early 10th Anniversary gift, Christa said we won tickets to see a taping of The Oprah Winfrey Show. We decided to make a weekend of it, so Grandma and Grandpa Havel came to stay with the boys, and we were off. | The show was taped on Thursday, September 9th. Mark didn't know it but, thanks to Christa, he was one of the 150 "Ultimate Viewers" who filled the audience, with one friend each. We wore Oprah's favorite colors, which caught the attention of the producers and earned us fifth row seats and a couple of free t-shirts.
2: The show included John Travolta, Don Johnson, and featured the stories of several "Ultimate Viewers." Paul Simon surprised Oprah with a song at the end of it all.
3: "...because after all, this really is my 25th season and this is my last chance to do something really BIG. And if you wanted to do something BIG, you would want to take along your Ultimate Viewers. And I started to think about 'where would I most want to go?' ...Maybe I should take all of you... with me... to the other side of the world!" "We're going to Australia!"
4: Since the show was taped on a Thursday, but didn't air until the following Monday, the audience was sworn to secrecy about the trip. Once word was out, our 15 minutes of fame included an interview with the NBC affiliate in Indianapolis, along with some features in the New Palestine Press and the New Palestine Reporter.
5: A few days after the season premiere aired, we were given access to a site dedicated to the Ultimate Viewers, which was used to help plan for the trip. We completed surveys there and received information all along the way about what to do and when. We also began having phone conversations with representatives from Harpo who were surprisingly interested in what we wanted to do while we were in Australia. They asked us about what we liked to do on vacation, if we had any Australian family or friends to visit, or if there was anything, in particular, we wanted to experience Down Under. (We're pretty sure that, because Christa mentioned really wanting to climb the Sydney Harbor Bridge, that's why we were chosen to make the climb in Oprah's small group.) We couldn't believe how much time they invested in us or that they could really accommodate all we were telling them. Once the trip started, it didn't take long to see how much they really did pay attention to what each of us told them. A few weeks before the trip, we were given the option to leave a day earlier than planned to account for potentially bad weather or other compli- cations. So, we left from Indianapolis on Saturday, December 4th. There was snow enough to delay our flight, which caused us to miss our connection in Chicago. No worries, though. As soon as we got off the plane in Chicago, we got a call from Oprah's people, telling us there were boarding passes for a new flight waiting for us, and we made it to L.A. as planned.
6: Not only did Mark win a bottle of wine from the plane's pilot on the way to L.A., but the red carpet treatment started as soon as we landed at LAX, when we met our first "Blue Shirts," who would be our guides, friends and fellow travelers for the next ten days. We spent the night at the Westin in L.A., where they had food, drinks and our new smart phones waiting for us. Cory (below) was the leader of the ''Blue Shirts."
7: Despite lots of rumors he might be flying us to Australia, this was as close as we got to John Travolta. | As we waited in the airport, there was Aussie food, drinks, music, movies and representatives from Tourism Australia to prepare us for the fun.
8: They warned us about paparazzi and more red carpets, and they weren't kidding. There was press at the Sydney Airport and choirs, musicians, aboriginal welcome ceremonies and plenty to eat and drink waiting for us at the Sydney Intercontinental Hotel.
10: In order to avoid jet-lag, they wanted us to stay busy from the moment we got settled. Even though we missed our scheduled bike tour because our luggage wasn't ready on time, we walked around Sydney on our own. The Opera House and the Sydney Harbor Bridge were right around the corner.
12: Our first night in Sydney included a cruise, with drinks and appetizers, across Sydney Harbor to the Taronga Zoo, where we saw a bird show, met our first koala and had a great feast.
14: After one night in Sydney, we headed for the Blue Mountains with the "Red Kangaroos," our traveling buddies for the next three nights and four days. We took a break during our three hour bus ride for lunch in the town of Leura. We ate at Darley's at the five-star Lilianfels Resort and Spa. We also met Jim Bridges and Janice Cosby, from Detroit, for the first time.
17: The Red Kangaroos, our group of 24 Ultimate Viewers, got to spend our excursion at the Wolgan Valley Resort and Spa, the only six-star resort in Australia. It was so remote and exclusive, one lone member of the paparazzi bothered to wait for us there, even though he couldn't get past the gate.
18: Our hosts at Wolgan Valley met us inside the gate and drove us onto the 4,000 acre property in open-air, off-road vehicles.
19: The Wolgan Valley Resort and Spa is carbon neutral, using practices like rainwater collection, water recycling and solar energy. There are 40 individual suites, built entirely of locally-sourced wood, stone and metal. Each furnishing and fixture, from the lamps to the beds to the front door frames, is also made by local artisans, specifically for the resort. All of that, and it's still luxurious enough to cost between $1,500 - $2,000 a night.
24: Our guide, Wade, drove us around the Wolgan Valley for an evening kangaroo safari.
26: Our safari ended with drinks and appetizers, on a deck, in the middle of the valley, at sunset.
28: The clock at the end of this hall is made from a 200 year old tree that fell on the property.
32: My horse was Wrangler, Christa's was Marshmallow, and our guides were Simone and Carmen.
33: We took a bus trip to see some sites and do some shopping on our third day in Wolgan Valley.
35: The Three Sisters
37: Our last night at Wolgan Valley included an outdoor dinner at the Darwin homestead, a fully restored home where Charles Darwin stayed when he visited Australia, in 1836. The home was originally built in 1832. Christa liked the garden here, where much of the resort's food is grown.
38: Our farewell dinner was bittersweet. It was our best meal and a fun party and we were sad to see our time together end. But, we were ready to get back to Sydney to see what else Oprah had in store. To the right is Ben, Christa's favorite server. Below is Joost, the resort's General Manager, with Christa, Janice and Jim.
40: Back in Sydney, we knew we were headed to a party at the Royal Botanic Gardens to meet our hostess. There were more red carpets and paparazzi, and we did an interview with the Australian equivalent of Entertainment Tonight.
41: As part of it all, we took a group photo, Oprah was welcomed by the Premier of New South Wales, Kristina Keneally, she spoke to her Ultimate Viewers, there was a tremendous fireworks show and as a tribute to Oprah, they lit up the Sydney Harbor Bridge with a giant letter "O".
42: Our itinerary for the following day was in our room after the garden party, instructing us to meet in the Treasury Room at 6:30 a.m. When we were the only ones to show up that early, we realized we'd been chosen to climb the Sydney Harbor Bridge in a group of 10 that included Oprah and Gayle. We took a bus to the bridge and after passing the breathalizer test, suiting up and watching Oprah and Gayle practice on the simulator, we followed them, along with their entourage, into one of the pylons that support the bridge. As we waited for elevators, guides and further instructions, it was pretty clear we were all nervous, so Mark suggested we say a prayer. When Oprah and Gayle realized I wasn't kidding and after Christa told them I really was a pastor, Oprah said, "All right. Let's pray then." We circled up, held hands, Mark prayed and when we were done, Oprah looked at Gayle and said, "Well, he just pulled that right out of his little prayer bucket now, didn't he?!?!"
43: As we were about to begin the climb, Oprah's producers started to line us up with others from our group behind Oprah and Gayle, but Gayle insisted she wanted "Pastor Mark and his friend, Christa," to be behind her. The climb was great and thanks to a helicopter that ran out of gas before it could capture the "money shot" of Oprah at the bridge's summit, we spent lots of time small-talking, singing Christmas carols and sweating it out before we had to say goodbye. (We didn't know it at the time, but the 316 of us who were there set a record for the most people to climb the Sydney Harbor Bridge at once. The picture on the left was in the National Enquirer and a couple of Sydney papers.)
44: This is the AP photo, taken after the climb.
45: After climbing the bridge, we ate lunch on the harbor and went surfing at Bondi Beach.
48: After surfing, the Bondi Children's Choir sang their own Christmas carol for us. | Christmas in Bondi We don' have Frosty and we don't have Jingle Bells But what we've got is an ocean that swells We don't get snow and we don't ride in a sleigh But Christmas for us is a sun-shiny day Christmas in Bondi Christmas is fun Christmas in Bondi What we get is a whole lot of sun We still sing carols and we still have Santa Claus But we got mozzies and all that creepy crawls We still have feasting when the family comes around Enjoying the time when surprises abound | Christmas in Bondi Christmas is fun Christmas in Bondi What we get is a whole lot of sun Don't forget to love your neighbor Don't forget to care for your friends Our world needs looking after Christmas is the time to make amends Christmas in Bondi Christmas is fun Christmas in Bondi What we get is a whole lot of sun
50: We participated in a regatta on Sydney Harbor with the rest of the Ultimate Viewers. Some watched from a ferry, others rode on the replica of a ship sailed by James Cook. We got to actually work the sails on a smaller boat. | Eight Red Kangaroos, with the help of a bona fide skipper, Nicholas, actually raced our way around the harbor with 19 other sailboats. We came in second place.
53: As we cruised around the harbor, learning to work the smaller sails and waiting for the race to begin, on a cue unknown to us, each boat raised its main sail and all of a sudden, the harbor was filled with another tribute to Oprah and her farewell season.
54: Nada and Lee got to sail with Gayle. We didn't know until later that Russell Crowe was on Oprah's boat.
55: Oprah, Gayle and Russell Crowe joined the Ultimate Viewers for lunch after the regatta and Oprah gave another speech to the group.
56: For our next surprise, we went to the Jay-Z/U2 show at the Olympic Stadium in Sydney.
57: We had VIP passes for the taping of two Oprah shows on the steps of the Sydney Opera House. The first show taped in the morning. The second show taped after lunch inside the Opera House and a wardrobe change, for Oprah and most of the rest of us, because it was so hot outside.
58: Russell Crowe | Terri, Robert and Bindi Irwin | Jay-Z | Bon Jovi
59: Bono | Keith Urban and Nicole Kidman | Olivia Newton-John | Hugh Jackman
60: "I Still Call Australia 'Home'"
61: Nada and Lee Smith at LAX | Alicia and Emerson Merkerson at Wolgan Valley | Janice Cosby and Jim Bridges in the Blue Mountains | Carrie Abbott and Lisa Jankowski on the way to the Taronga Zoo
62: Greg and Linda Kinnell at the Taronga Zoo | Howard and Stephanie Serber in the Blue Mountians | Leo and Kristin Budija in Sydney | Marilyn Nelson and Jackie Steinke after the regatta
63: The "Blue Shirts" out of uniform - Dennis, Pip, Craig, Lucy and Vince - at Wolgan Valley. | A photo-op for Dr. Paluga | Our last hurrah in Sydney, with the Smiths and the Budijas