Johannesburg - I was one of 12 journalists excited about trying to outwit, outsmart and outplay one another in our own version of Survivor SA earlier this year ... well, at least for a day.
It became the longest day of my life on a secluded tropical island with nothing but a raincoat in my green “dry bag”. The only sources of food were coconuts and oranges, and if we wanted edible protein, we would have to fend for ourselves and catch something in the ocean.
Getting there felt like a challenge on its own – we first went to the island of El Nido before a boat trip to the Survivor island. We were under strict instructions not to talk to one another until we arrived at our destination. This is what one of the producers, armed with a walkie-talkie and as determined as an army commander, referred to as a “gag order”.
We were then told to jump off the boat midway, and those who could swim had to grab as many supplies as they could from a heavy “bunka”. The bunka had a rope tied to it and needed to be cut loose with a machete and dragged to the mainland.
After much paddling, pushing and shouting of instructions by those team-mates who could swim, the bunka – which could have been used to form part of a structure for much needed shelter – had to be left behind due to time limits, much to our dismay.
But the game had to go on.
Imagine travelling long hours to your destination, getting little sleep, being extremely hungry and being stuck on a beautiful yet eerie island with a group of strangers.
The author (third from the right) with her fellow media Survivor contestants. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Months of little exercise meant an even more daunting day of competition for me.
It really is different watching others on television do it – actually being part of the game means you must be calculating and have strong mental and physical willpower to be able to push yourself to the limit.
In our case, threats of a cyclone were on the horizon and we spent a long day forming alliances, speaking in hushed tones, and using our eyes and codes to communicate about who would be sent packing first.
The game pretty much started before our arrival. While most of us were strangers, others had already crossed paths, were the best of friends or instantly hit it off.
Once on the island, strong personalities clashed and arguments centred on who did the least amount of work, whose expert architectural advice was better than another’s regarding building shelter, and who riled others about their refusal to share an orange.
Two team members were able to make a fire while all this commotion was happening and someone volunteered to cook the rice, which ended up being a mushy mess and tasted like smoke. I know this because I was one of three contestants who dared to taste this Survivor staple.
A media contestant stokes a fire
The author tries some rice
I spent much of my time away from the other contestants, cutting down banana leaves. I was the Tarzan in this humid paradise, climbing up banana trees and cutting off fronds using a machete. My heart beat so fast and sweat dripped from my face like I had just done an hour of intense cardio. My hands and feet felt stiff, and I wished I had not been forced to leave my fitness watch with all my other belongings. Each time I looked down, I pitied my team-mate watching from below in her weave. She would look up, fanning herself and probably regretting taking on this mission.
We had to find whatever we could use as a roof for our incomplete shelter before night fell and it started raining. We convinced ourselves that at least this would secure our spaces in the game, and it did.
Several hours later – I say hours later because we had all lost a sense of time – we sailed to a different island, were our immunity challenge awaited. Crew members were already positioned there, filming the latest instalment of Survivor SA. The contestants, like us, walked in a straight line to a boat waiting ashore. We were asked to look in the other direction while they came in so we couldn’t identify anyone.
We were to do the same immunity challenge they had just completed. It involved running along a series of balance beams while avoiding a mud pit, collecting a total of nine colourful wooden blocks and then stacking them in the correct order. If you dropped one, you had to start again. Show host Nico Panagio made sure I went back a couple of times while shouting: “Be careful, Hlengiwe!”
I came close to winning immunity, and would have if I had not run in the wrong direction to shout for Nico to stop the clock and come and verify everything was stacked the way it should be. So, battered and bruised, I left with a limp and a bloodied thumb.
Tribal council was the worst. Nico knew all the buttons to press. He sparked an explosion of frank talk and knew things that happened behind the scenes, and then watched us shred each other to pieces. I used my gut feeling to try to vote off a lazy contender whose excuse was a bad knee. Then the person who started the fire was the first one who got voted off – talk about a twist in the game.
We ended up not sleeping on the island because of the cyclone threat as safety was a priority. We left tribal council in high spirits, laughing about what an amazing yet exhausting day it had been.
Limping down the narrow streets of El Nido later that day, I was so relieved and, after a shot of coffee, a hot shower and a meal fit for a queen, I was in even higher spirits. But sleep was elusive because, back home, history was being made – a president was finally leaving office and a new one was being sworn in.
Doing media Survivor was an experience I will carry with me for the rest of my life.
Survivor SA airs Thursdays at 19:00 on M-Net (DStv channel 101)
*Nhlabathi was hosted by M-Net and flown by Cathay Pacific, visit cathaypacific.com/za