XfinityTV.com sent me deep into the wilderness on a mission to bring you all kinds of “Survivor” stuff including behind-the-scenes tidbits, pre-game interviews with the cast, insights from “Survivor” host Jeff Probst and Challenge Producer John Kirhoffer, a look at the first Tribal Council, and much more. I’ll be cranking out this goodness daily, so be sure to follow me on Twitter (@gordonholmes) for up-to-the-minute updates on all of this season’s “Survivor” fun.
One of my favorite parts of the “Survivor” press junket is the press’s running of the first immunity challenge. Generally, this involves me and the rest of the press corps squaring off against the young, fit group of challenge testers known as the Dream Team.
Over the years, I’ve tried to frame these exhibitions in a way that makes sense from an in-game standpoint. In Gabon, I was like any first-time “Survivor” player, overwhelmed and unsure of what to expect. In Nicaragua, I likened myself to a member of a tribe that needed a win to halt the other team’s runaway momentum. In Samoa, it was the first time it seemed like it was an even match-up.
But now? Well, when the tribes were split up, it became pretty obvious that we were at a bit of a physical disadvantage. Each of the teams featured press members and Dream Teamers, but while the Kalabaw and Matsing tribes had several Dream Team members, our tribe (Tandang) only had one.
Things weren’t looking promising, or as Dream Team leader Zach would put it, “You guys aren’t exactly the betting favorites.”
The one advantage my team did have is that we have a ton of press challenge experience. Also, we are good friends that trust each other and know our strengths and weaknesses. So, it’s almost like a Fans vs. Favorites situation, where the Fans have a big physical advantage.
The challenge is broken into three parts. First, two members of each tribe will run across a field and down a path that leads through a jungle.
Once they’re through the path, they’ll come upon a clearing that has a cargo net that leads up to a platform. At the top of the platform is a box that is held closed with three series of knotted ropes. When the duo unties all of their knots and opens their tribe’s box, they’ll find a pair of paddles. They’ll then take those paddles down the cargo net, through the jungle, and back to their teammates.
I feel like I’m forgetting something about this leg…oh yeah…the two tribemates will be tethered together at the waist. Micronesia all over again.
In the second leg, two members will have to push their boat across the beach and into the water. Once it’s there, they’ll hop in and paddle out to a buoy. Then, both members will hop into the water. One of them will swim down and release a chest from the bottom of the ocean. When the chest surfaces, the two of them will need to swim to shore while pushing the chest. When the chest reaches a certain point, the other members of the tribe are allowed to run down and help bring the chest back to the starting point of the challenge.
This brings us to the last leg. Here the final two members of the tribe will crack open the chest and retrieve some puzzle pieces. These pieces will fit together to form a tower-type structure. The first tribe to complete the puzzle wins immunity and a case of beer. The second tribe will receive immunity and a bottle of wine. The third tribe will be ridiculed for the rest of the press junket.
With three sets of people doing such diverse activities, choosing the right duos was going to be the key to this challenge. Like I said before, all of us (except for our Dream Teamer) had been friends for years and worked well together. Almost like a tribe that’s spent the first 20 days together and genuinely enjoys each other.
Also playing in our favor was the fact that we had two very strong swimmers. These two are practically designed for water activities. There’s our boating team.
Picking our runners was relatively easy too, as one of our women has experience in running events and I enjoy jogging in a nearby park.
That left our puzzle star from Nicaragua and our Dream Teamer on puzzle duty. (NOTE: Our Dream Teamer was a super fit gentlemen, but we didn’t think it was fair to let him do one of the more physical legs of the challenge.)
Now that we had our people in place, it was time to figure out how to go about everything. I’m a big believer in the little details making the difference in events like this. When Probst walked us through the jungle, it occurred to me that the path was way too narrow for the duos to be passing one another. Basically, whoever was in first when we entered the jungle, was going to stay in first. Odds were, all three duos would only be a second or two apart. So, it really didn’t matter if we were first or third.
Also, I’d always wondered in tethered challenges, why don’t the partners hold hands? A tether can pull you in a way you’re not used to or are not anticipating, but a hand can lead you, support you, and help you back up if you fall. I pitched this idea to my partner and she was on board. I believe the exact words I used may have been, “You’re Katniss, I’m Peeta, let’s do this.”
We lined up on our mats, heard Probst’s first official “Survivors, ready? Go!” of the season, and were off. The Matsing duo rushed off to a lead and were the first two into the jungle. They were followed by Kalabaw, then by me and my partner. Like I had predicted, only a second or two separated all three teams.
Probst jogged behind us, giddy that my partner and I were in last place. We’ll see who laughs last, J-Pro.
The Matsing team seemed to be employing a strategy where they ran as far apart as possible so their tether could act as a barrier so that other teams couldn’t get by them. This caused them to fall a few times. However, since quarters were so tight, we really couldn’t pass them.
We hit the clearing and all went to our individual cargo nets. My partner and I dropped hands and quickly made the climb. We’d been tethered together in Gabon, so we knew to keep an eye on each other so as not to throw the other off. We were still behind, but not by much.
We went to work on the knots. I frantically dug into the ropes, while listening carefully for Probst’s commentary. I kept expecting to hear “Matsing has their oars!” or “Kalabaw is done with their ropes!” Those calls weren’t coming.
I made quick work of the first set and started on the second. My partner finished hers. Still nothing from Probst. I untied the final knot and threw open the box. Probst’s declaration that we had retrieved our oars was met by cries of “What?!” from our opponents. Success!
We skittered down the cargo net and headed back into the jungle. Probst followed closely behind. Our hand-holding technique worked beautifully as it seemed to let us cut around corners quickly.
(Not-So-Humble Brag: When it was all over, the production staff was very impressed by the hand-holding technique.)
As we approached the end of the jungle trail, Jeff said to us, “Get ready to hear your tribe explode!” He was right. It was awesome. We hit the field and our teammates cheered us on as we handed over the oars. Easily one of my favorite “Survivor” moments ever.
From there, our boating team started pushing the boat toward the water. One of the things we’d discussed is the importance of going straight over going fast. Without fail, every time there a boating challenge, one of the teams veers off in some bizarre direction. Our team handled it beautifully, making a straight shot for the buoy.
The other teams received their paddles a couple of minutes later. My partner and I high fived over the lead we’d given our paddlers.
One of the things that I hope doesn’t get lost in the magic of editing when you watch this challenge on Wednesday, September 19, 2012 at 8 p.m. ET is how long it took for the swimmers to bring the chests back to the shore. It had to be exhausting.
When our team was finally within range, I kicked off my shoes (assuming it’d make it easier to maneuver in the water) and rushed down to help them retrieve the chest. This was a nightmare. The chest was full of water and wouldn’t budge in the wet sand.
Eventually, we figured out that flipping it end over end was our best bet. Using this technique we got it up on the beach and were able to lift it to the mat.
From there, there really isn’t much to describe. Our boys cracked open the chest and went to work putting the tower together. It took a while to figure it out, but they had a big lead, didn’t panic, and brought us a victory.
In the end, who wins the challenge doesn’t really matter. We generously shared our spoils with everyone. If we had lost and been forced to go to Tribal Council, we would’ve just voted out our Dream Team member. And it’s not like anyone’s keeping track of win/loss records, although I contest that my 3 and 1 lifetime record makes me the Ozzy Lusth of the press team.
But the challenge itself is important. It helps production make changes that will make the final product more entertaining and more competitive. Challenge Producer John Kirhoffer said, “There will be 50% less knots for the actual challenge. Because it took forever for you guys to come out of the jungle.”
It’s important in that it taught me the value of experience and strategy. There’s a reason returnees have a history of going so deep into this game when they’re playing newbies.
And it’s important that it gave Jeff Probst a chance to poke fun at me. He loves that.
Don’t miss the premiere of “Survivor: Philippines” – Wednesday, September 19, 2012 at 8 p.m. ET on CBS.