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Communing With Camels and Koalas

Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Oza family of North Potomac is the latest contributor to our Your Vacation in Lights feature, in which we invite Travel section readers to dish about their recent trips. It's a big, confusing travel world out there, and you can help your fellow travelers navigate it. Your hot tip could be the next guy's daymaker; your rip-off restaurant, the next family's near miss. To file your own trip report -- and become eligible to win a digital camera -- see the fine print below.

THE TRIP: Two weeks in Australia (Sydney, Canberra, Ayers Rock/Uluru and Cairns), followed by one week on New Zealand's North Island (Auckland, glowworm caves and geothermal activity near Rotorua, Wellington).

WHO: Anand, a high school student; Rachana, who was recently sworn in as a lawyer in Maryland; and parents Abha and Dipak.

WHY: None of us had ever been to the Southern Hemisphere. We wanted to know how it feels to hang upside down.

WHEN: August, which is late winter in the Southern Hemisphere. We had to pack for everything from 95 degree weather in the Uluru Desert to freezing winter temperatures in Wellington, New Zealand.

COST: It cost about $20,000 for the four of us, about half of which was airfare alone. Since the time we planned the trip, the dollar fell more than 10 percent against the Australian and New Zealand dollars, making our trip more expensive than expected.

PLANNING: We had been thinking about this trip for more than five years but started planning about eight months before the trip, using travel books and the Internet. We stored our reservations information and Google maps on our BlackBerry for easy access.

GETTING THERE WAS: Loooooooooooooooooooong. After the five-hour flight from Washington Dulles to Los Angeles, it was a 14-hour nonstop flight to Sydney.

IT MADE IT ALL WORTH IT WHEN . . . we learned how to snorkel in the Great Barrier Reef.

ONE THING WE'D DO DIFFERENTLY: We'd learn how to snorkel before visiting the Great Barrier Reef.

COOLEST ATTRACTIONS: Rangitoto Island near Auckland, which did not exist 600 years ago and was formed from a volcanic eruption; the Koala Park in Sydney, where the kids petted koalas and fed wallabies; and the glowworm caves near Rotorua. The cave ceilings were dotted with spots of light that made it look like the night sky. It was breathtaking.

I GRITTED MY TEETH HARDEST WHEN. . . the customs officer at the Auckland airport found two oranges that were accidentally left in our backpack. We ended up paying a fine of almost $150. In New Zealand, they take their agriculture seriously.

MOST UNUSUAL MEAL: Rachana chowed down on a grilled kangaroo wrap for lunch in Australia. The rest of us are vegetarians and stuck with non-kangaroo dishes.

MYTH EXPOSED: Anand discovered that the reason toilet water swirls in the opposite direction of that in the Northern Hemisphere has nothing to do with the Coriolis effect. It's because of how the toilets are constructed.

MOST DIFFICULT ADJUSTMENT: Driving on the "wrong" side of the road and observing distances in kilometers. The scenic highway in New Zealand winds through forests and climbs up and down mountains, so we could not estimate time based on distance.

UNANTICIPATED PROBLEM: Almost running out of gas on a North Island highway in the middle of the woods, with the nearest gas station about 100 miles away. As we were on our last drop, we came across a convenience store that had a lone 10-liter tank of gas for emergencies like ours, at twice the market rate. Coincidentally, the store owner was a Maryland native who married a Kiwi.

TOURIST ATTRACTION THAT TURNED OUT TO BE FUN: Riding camels in Uluru reminded us of pony rides when the kids were younger. A few months after our return, we were surprised to see one of our camels, Willy, in a KidsPost photo.

DON'T FORGET TO PACK: GPS navigation system with Aussie and Kiwi maps, lots of MiniDVs for video cameras and electronic storage to back up photos. We taped about eight hours of digital video and snapped 6,000 photos.

GO AGAIN? In a heartbeat! There was so much left unexplored, especially the gorgeous South Island of New Zealand. However, it would be a whole lot more inviting if a wormhole path were found to reduce the travel time.

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Want to see your own vacation in lights? We'll highlight one report each month. To enter, use the categories above as a guide (use as many as you wish, or add your own; for a list, go to http://www.washingtonpost.com/vacationinlights), and send your report to Your Vacation in Lights, Washington Post Travel Section, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071; or e-mail vacationinlights@washpost.com. Entries chosen for publication become eligible to receive a Canon PowerShot A590 IS (or equivalent) digital camera at the end of the year. Entries will be chosen on the basis of humor, originality and usefulness; are subject to editing for space and clarity; and become property of The Post, which may edit, publish, distribute or republish them in any form. Employees of The Post and their immediate families are not eligible. No purchase necessary.

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