Area woman takes trip of lifetime with Oprah

The UF academic adviser was among 302 chosen to go on a free trip to Australia

Liz Kazungu of Gainesville poses at her home in front of various Oprah Winfrey memorabilia that she got when she was one of 302 people to travel to Australia with the talk show mogul in December.

Tom Gaard/Correspondent
Published: Sunday, January 16, 2011 at 8:59 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 16, 2011 at 8:59 p.m.

Liz Kazungu was a 7-year-old girl in Africa when she connected with a woman in America named Oprah Winfrey.


‘Oprah's Ultimate Australian Adventure'

Airing at 4 p.m. on ABC

Tuesday: Sightseeing in Australia; meeting with Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard and a crowd of 10,000 in Melbourne's Federation Square.

Wednesday: Personal visits with locals; Oprah and audience head to the top of Sydney Harbor Bridge Climb; sailing with Russell Crowe.

Thursday: Taping from the Sydney Opera House, Oprah's guests include late “Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin's wife, Terri, and their children; rapper Jay-Z; and Russell Crowe with a performance by Bon Jovi.

Friday: Grand finale show at the Sydney Opera House with U2's Bono, Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman, Keith Urban and performance by Olivia Newton-John and friends.

Her father introduced her to Winfrey's talk show, and she was instantly hooked. From growing up in Kenya to living in America, the 33-year-old has rarely missed an episode. Like most Oprah fans, she hoped one day to be in the studio audience in Chicago and maybe meet the iconic media mogul and philanthropist.

Now, Kazungu can say that and a whole lot more.

Kazungu, an academic adviser at the University of Florida College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, was one of 302 lucky people who accompanied Winfrey to Australia in December for an unforgettable, lavish vacation. Starting Tuesday, "Oprah's Ultimate Australian Adventure" will air in four parts on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," which airs at 4 p.m. on ABC.

"I've been watching ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show' for 25 years, from the very first episode, even ‘AM Chicago.' I watched a couple of those," she said proudly in her apartment, with the TV turned to Winfrey's cable network OWN. "This was really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It was amazing."

In early summer 2010, Kazungu responded to a call on looking for the show's "ultimate viewers." She answered questions about herself and the show and shared her love and admiration for Winfrey. About three weeks later, Kazungu got a call from the show to set up an interview. Then they called again for a follow-up interview. On Aug. 26, she got an e-mail that said she had tickets to the show and could bring a guest.

Kazungu said in her online submission and phone interviews she talked a lot about her personal experience with the power of education and how much she loves her job, helping young adults discover their path and purpose in life. She said many of the guests on the trip worked in education, a topic and cause near and dear to Winfrey.

"I think it's a big part of what got me this opportunity," said Kazungu, who received her undergraduate and master's degrees in Ohio.

She and her mother, who is from D.C., flew to Chicago for the taping on Thursday, Sept. 9. They had no idea it was the season premiere episode and that the audience was filled with 150 people chosen as ultimate viewers. At the end of the show, Winfrey shocked the audience with an all-expenses paid dream trip to Australia.

When Kazungu returned the following Sunday, she couldn't say a word about what happened in Chicago. The show aired on Monday, Sept. 13. "We were sworn to secrecy," said Kazungu, who got a glimpse of herself when the show aired and took a photo of the TV screen. "We couldn't tell anybody. ... It was the hardest weekend."

Right away, she started to receive packages in the mail and e-mails and phone calls from the show's staff.

On Dec. 4, Kazungu, her mom and the guests arrived in Los Angeles for an orientation that would prep them for the trip. The next day, they took a direct, 15-hour flight to Sydney and arrived the morning of Dec. 7. Actor John Travolta was supposed to fly the plane, but his wife, Kelly Preston, went into labor with their third child. He apologized and wished the fans a safe trip via a recorded video message that aired on the plane, Kazunga said.

"When we landed in Sydney, we were overwhelmed. They were cheering us on, there were people taking pictures and camera crews all over the airport," she said. "They warned us about it in a paparazzi tutorial, but none of us were really prepared for it. ... Apparently we just didn't realize how eager the people were to see these 302 people Oprah had chosen for the trip."

A charter bus took the fans to their hotel, the Sydney InterContinental. They were greeted with a red carpet that stretched from the street to the hotel entrance and Aborigines performing outside. There was also a special message inside their hotel rooms. "Welcome Ms. Liz Kazungu to InterContinental Sydney. We hope you will enjoy your stay" scrolled across the bottom of the screen when Kazungu turned on the plasma, flat-screen TV. "We all got our own room. ... We were truly VIP. We didn't realize we were VIP, but she really gave us the VIP treatment," Kazungu gushed.

The first day included a walking tour of Sydney, a luxury boat cruise across Sydney Harbour, and a visit to Taronga Zoo that included a "twilight Aussie barbecue."

"I think because we were so excited, that's one of the reasons we were able to make it through without being tired," Kazungu said, thinking back to the first day. "We were surviving off pure adrenaline."

For the next three days, the guests were divided into groups based on their interests and hobbies. Kazungu was a part of the group focusing on relaxation and wellness. They took a small private jet to the tropical oasis, Bryon Bay, a region in the northern part of New South Wales. For three days, they indulged in the ultimate in pampering, mediation, relaxation and fine dining at The Byron at Byron Resort & Spa. She had her very first massage — a full-body one in the middle of a rain forest.

"The highlight of the trip had to be the Gaia [a 25-acre retreat and spa co-founded by Olivia Newton-John] where we met Olivia Newton-John," she said. "We planted trees at her compound and put our names on each tree just to commemorate our visit. ... Then she had us over to one of her residences at the Gaia for dinner. We sang ‘Grease' songs. She was going from table to table talking to us, signing autographs. She was very gracious to us. It was just amazing."

Once all the groups returned to Sydney, there was a red-carpet, outdoor "Welcome Reception" at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney. In Oprah's honor, the city hung a huge "O" on the bridge, which lit up at night.

That night Kazungu's dream finally came true: She met and talked with Winfrey and even shared a hug. It was an "enormous" moment, and she described Winfrey as warm, down-to-Earth and said she "just had the nicest spirit."

"I was having wine, and I saw her by herself, and I just walked over there. I told her thank you for this trip, and she said you're welcome. I told her, as an African woman I want to thank you so much for opening up the schools in South Africa, and she was so gracious. I forgot to introduce myself so she was the one who asked me my name!" she squealed. "She said that this is her life's work and she truly, truly loves those girls and she, again, thanked us for the support. ... Everything that you've ever heard about her, she is everything and more."

Kazungu and her mother were a part of a select group of guests who were flown to Australia's capital, Canberra. They visited museums, toured Parliament, met the U.S. Ambassador to Australia Jeffrey Bleich and ate lunch at his home. The guests also experienced sailing on a yacht and were surprised with tickets to a U2 concert with Jay-Z as the opening act.

The last day of the trip, Kazungu, along with 6,000 locals, attended two tapings of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" at the Sydney Opera House with some famous Australian celebrities. One of the gifts audience members received was a silver necklace inscribed with "Oprah The Farewell Season."

"We couldn't believe it because now, on top of everything else, we had a keepsake," she said. "It was so special. We were beside ourselves."

Kazungu said during the experience she never felt like just an Oprah fan or audience member "but truly her guest."

"I have never spent that much time in my life doing so much and not spent one dime — ever. I'm still shocked," she said. "She let us share a little bit of her life. For me, I'll never forget that."

Kazungu said heading to the airport was very bittersweet for everyone, but in true form, Winfrey surprised them by showing up to say goodbye.

"She thanked us for the trip and said ‘Godspeed, be well and spread the love,' " said Kazungu, who wants to start a foundation to help young children in her Kenyan village called Spread the Love. "She is the emblem of positivity and grace. Oprah Winfrey is the most gracious person I have ever known. There is no better person."

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