Stage and Screen Joins M-Net’s Survivor in the Philippines.
by Louw Mulder
Sometimes, life just decides to give back, rewarding you for all the times you were at the giving end. That is how I received the blessing that came my way earlier this year, when I was selected by M-Net to be part of the media group to travel to the Philippine Island of El Nido, where the production company, Afrokaans, was at the time busy filming the current series of Survivor South Africa. To sum up my experience as once-in-a-lifetime, would be an understatement, as it was filled with so many events, blessings in fact, that money simply cannot buy.
After three airports in as many countries, fifteen hours in two planes, and a 6-hour road trip through the landscapes of the Palawan province, we arrived in El Nido at about 22:00, bringing the total travelling time to over 24 hours since leaving O.R. Tambo International. We were received with a warm welcome from M-Net’s Ingrid Engelbrecht and very friendly Linda Steynberg, a production member with Afrokaans. Not only did the friendly South African faces warm us up after a rapid overdose of Chinese and other Asian faces, the humid, hot climate of this tropical Island, started to add reality to the overwhelming fact that I was where I was.
Within a few moments, the friendly vibe was replaced with a sudden shift in attitudes, prompting an uncertain, clueless feeling towards what is happening. Then I realised that we were all being treated as the real Survivors were, when they arrived at this very same spot, prior to starting their quest for the million rand. We were instructed to be back at this spot in the morning at 5 am. That is all that was said to us. After getting to our rooms for some sleep, I was intrigued, yet very excited finding my instruction package on my pillow. It all became real: “You will be taken to your secret Island, where you will be cast away, to play Survivor“. How long we would be on the island, secluded from society, the menu for the next unknown number of days, were all a puzzle on it’s own, as I went to bed content, and happy.
It was Tuesday morning, the sun was waking up, and I tasted the crisp, foreign breeze of this tropical paradise. Lead by our guides, refusing to engage in any type of communication, we came to a spot where the gentle rays of the northern hemisphere’s dawn, introduced us to awe and beauty of our surroundings. There was the ocean, connecting all the many small islands as far as I could see. I was overwhelmed. Blessed. I took some moments to just pause, reset my excitement to appreciate this real-life scenery of nature’s magic.
Breaking the spell caused by the hypnotising scenes of our surroundings, were the boats on the water, being occupied by people, lots of people. Some with two-way radios, others with big, HD cameras, and me, realising that I was in the middle of a world-class, full scale TV production being created there and then. Even all these water-vehicles in front of nature’s backdrop, was picture-pretty.
As a tribe of our own, we made our way to our boat which would sail us off to this adventure. We assembled, and met our sergeant, Nini Conradie, officially referred to as the content producer, telling us that we would now be taken to another location, but broke our excitement as she explained that there was to be no communication of any kind between us castaways, until the game began.
I felt as confused as a chameleon on a pride flag, fusions of excitement, gratefulness, experiencing the real essence in the meaning of happy, but being forced to remain silent and focus my attention to the magnificent shapes of all the various islands, as our boat passed through the crystal clear, turquoise water. It was the first time I heard the beauty-radiating nature talk to me in an audible voice. This however, was personal, peaceful, being totally consumed by the majestic views all around me.
Dropped on our secret Island, right after our first reward challenge, I had my mind in multitasking mode. Most importantly, I was there in full spirit, opened up to experience everything in total abundance, before it was over. Secondly, I aimed to satisfy my inner-interest of how everything that happens in a production like this, is being done behind the scenes, with thirdly, being open-minded as a contestant, even though in a mini-setup, to play the game of Survivor.
It is so surreal to see how it is made, to be in that moment where you are at, knowing that from here on forward, you are left to your own mercy. Deep down I knew that I would someday like to play the game for real, but this experience has changed my mind, living within the severe degree of difficulty the real contestants had to, some of them for almost 40 days. With only a limited amount of water provided and only being able to feed yourself with what you can find on the island or win in challenges, you need to divide your mind, heart, and motivation in as many ways that will see you stay in the game, both physically, and mostly, emotionally.
What I realise the real castaways are faced with, is the effective ways to intertwine the matrix of challenges that are only drafted in your head, once every situation unfolds more options to venture into. You are faced with the fact that you are in a very hot and humid environment, where a cool spot in the shade is nowhere possible, due to the many types of insects and creatures whose environment you are invading, are making most spots very creepy.
Then, as a common need, there are the need for shelter, fire, along with all the other things that will make surviving possible. Even though the basic instinct of surviving comes first, the sword of your actual participation in a game worth a million bucks, doesn’t leave your thoughts, making your every decision and move, based partially on the psychological principle of how much it will be acceptable to your fellow players… because at the end, your life in the game, may depend on the name they will write down sometime.
What is not seen on TV, is the scale of the behind-the-scenes production, with a full medical team being on stand-by at all times, as well as the cameramen, and the content producers keeping a hawk-eye on everything. Communication between the Survivors and any of the crew both ways, are completely prohibited, except for emergencies and when the content producers are conducting interviews. There are cameras in your face, recording everything you do and say, but they are easily ignored, as you are instructed to go on as you would as if they were not there. And as I experienced, tempers flare high, and your irritation to other tribe members doing nothing, will make you say that thing you do which you normally won’t, when you know a camera is rolling.
A getaway moment, that time you can escape the theatrical drama of playing a Survivor game, is when you are called aside by the content producer, for that little one-on-one camera interview. You know very well that what you are saying there, can only come out when it is juicy enough to be screened on TV, so you just let go, making it a therapy session to just vent the frustration out.
While crews are kept to a minimum on the islands to maintain the feeling of isolation for the castaways, there are a crew of more than 160 people busy in the background at challenges, making everything possible; from the team designing and setting up all the challenges, to all the admin staff arranging all the boats to transport everyone to the next part where TV history will be made. I picked up, while being sailed off to another island for our own Immunity challenge, how much logistics are being put into even the smallest segment of the show. Now, after having seen so many episodes on M-Net already, thorough planning was visible in the excitement of each episode.
During the challenges, much more is happening behind the scenes than what an episode has time for. The contestants are kitted up with microphones, while waiting for the production to finish rigging up a number of cameras. There are cameras hidden in trees, hidden in camouflaged scaffolding, even go-pro cameras along the obstacle course, positioned in such strategic places, as I learned without a doubt, to get those bad and humiliating falls on film.
Each element of a challenge, is directed from a fully-equipped production studio, set up somewhere along the obstacle course. The contestants, obviously unable to communicate with the whole production team, then gets a complete explanation of the challenge at hand, which will ensure that every contestant has a fair game, after many of the questions they may have, are answered. When all the contestants are in their places, it is time for the very familiar call: “Survivors, are you ready?” Then the game starts, and your whole being goes into the need to win. You forget somewhat about the lack of food, the personal clashes at camp, just to know there are other people around you, even being ignored to the full.
Losing the challenge, like I have, is then rubbed in your face by your opposing tribe before you’re transported back to your camp, leaving you there until the next challenge, or Tribal Council. For the winner of the challenge, it may be sweeter, as Immunity is giving some peace of mind, with a step closer to the big prize. For the rest of us, the conniving and verbal backstabbing starts, betraying trust in discussions on who will be voting out, in order to enhance your own game. I found that a lot of personal values are being attacked, and moral issues are being confronted at that point, and the more hungry you get, the more you just worry about yourself.
So the time comes for the boats to arrive, to take us to tribal council. Again, being there as a contestant, as well as a journalist trying to see the real events behind the glamour, we were told what to do. It is a fully orchestrated, carefully designed production on its own, with stage lights, cameras as well as multifaceted elements behind the cameras. Handrie Bason, executive producer of this series from Afrokaans, told me during my stay there that Nico Panagio, presenter of Survivor SA, has carte blanche to just lead the contestants to open up, and as I have witnessed right there, happens very easily. “Sometimes, the tribal councils go on for a few hours, which make our task of editing it to a few minutes, really hard, but the content gets so much better” he said.
Behind the scenes, key crew members are kept informed of what happens on the castaways’ islands. In treating us like he would the real cast-aways, I saw the quality and professionalism embedded in Panagio, as well as his passion for the game. He treats every contestant with the same respect as what they treat the game. This in itself, is a huge psychological issue being one of the players, because he manages to get that touch of consciousness back in play, to make you rethink your strategy.
It was then time for us to vote, and to see the technical, real events, while voting is under way. I had my time to vote, and at the end, was voted out of the game. I had to step up, get my torch be put out, while being told by Nico Panagio that the tribe has spoken. I had to feel that shitty feeling of leaving the tribe, walking down a pathway where you know it is the end.
Due to a Cyclone threatening those Islands of the Philippines we were at, M-Net decided to end our game due to our safety, but not before they told us that the real contestants, as well as the crew on those shifts, will carry on as normal. Within the real game, the show always goes on, standing back for nothing, not even bad weather. But for us, being there as people being blessed as we were, were sailed back to the main island, with a feast of real food waiting for us – and we were back to being treated as VIP’s by both M-Net and Afrokaans. For the rest of the week, we were there to get our information, and to experience the magic of the Survivor SA 6th season location.
At the end of our time on El Nido, after having the wonderful experience of some tours of the various islands, getting to know the culture of our host island, and so much more intriguing elements making me personally in some way appreciating what I have back home, much much more, we left our hotel for the airport where our travels back home will take flight. After two connecting flights to Hong Kong, it was time to face the bittersweet emotions of heading back home. It was time to go, but I still didn’t want to leave this treasure I discovered, the previous 6 days. The realisation that we are on our way home to our mother country, stared me in my face, just as the Chinese air-hostess was, welcoming us onto the Cathay Pacific Boeing 777.
Based in Hong Kong, Cathay Pacific Airways offer scheduled passenger and cargo services to more than 180 destinations in Asia, North America, Australia, Europe and Africa, using a fleet of 140 wide-body aircraft. The airline offers exceptional service and world-class products on the ground and in the air, including its multiple-award-winning long haul Business Class, in which we were unfortunately not flying in. Cathay Pacific has made substantial investments to develop Hong Kong as one of the world’s leading global transportation hubs. They believe that travelling well is an important part of living well. That’s why they continually strive to enhance the overall travel experience – to be more personable in their service, more well-thought-out in their design, more intuitive in anticipating their customer’s needs. When you travel well, your trip will become more memorable, more meaningful and more rewarding. This philosophy has been at the heart of everything Cathay Pacific has done for 70 years.
While getting hold of myself again, in a quiet, dark airplane, with Huis Genoot’s Marisa Fockema sleeping on my lap, my busy, but very grateful mind summed up my experience. South Africa was in for a treat, with this series of Survivor. I met Handrie Basson back in the first days of Stage and Screen during Idols op Kyknet, and knowing him this long, and to see how far he and Leroux have brought their company, gave me feelings of being proud to be part of this.
I was thinking about our host, Nadine Moonsamy, Publicity coordinator at M-Net, who made every day for us so special, treating us with the appreciation that will motivate our future endeavours with them. I was thinking about the many people I met on the Island from so many countries, the friendships that were born, as well as the real survivor buff in my language, as prove of me being a survivor.
Thank you M-Net, Afrokaans and Cathay Pacific. Now, it is time for South Africa to experience El Nido, through Survivor South Africa, to be screened on M-Net every Thursday at 19:00.
Here are some of the photos on our trip: