Craig Tansley shows you how you can have your own Survivor-like experiences in the South Pacific islands the series were filmed in…
When the producers of Survivor were scouting the planet for wild but pristine landscapes where contestants could suffer to survive while viewers could fantasise over green mountainous hinterlands, secret white sandy bays and stunning blue seas, they didn’t go further than the South Pacific. For this is the Earth’s wildest and most unaffected retreat from the modern world. We look at where Survivor’s been set and how you can find your own wild adventure in these islands.
US Survivor series 19, 20, 23 and 24 were filmed in Samoa and Australian Survivor was filmed here in 2016 and 2017.
Samoa is that south seas hideout you probably always imagined. Adhering to its age-old traditions more than any other country in Polynesia, paramount chiefs still rule the population, and locals live in tiny villages in simple huts called fales which have no walls. So just being here will make you feel like you’re already on Survivor. And nowhere in the South Pacific is more pristine: there are waterfalls at every turn of the road, and deserted bays where big surf breaks onto protective reefs. And to get into a natural attraction, you’ll have to pay the local family who own it (relax, it’s just a few Samoan tala — A$4-5).
While Samoans are famous for their sleepy lifestyles (sleeping is considered a national pastime) there are many ways a visitor can take to the island’s stunning coastline and untapped hinterland. Visit some of the South Pacific’s most powerful waterfalls on a waterfall crawl tour, incorporating a visit to Samoa’s most famous natural attraction, the Sua Ocean Trench (used as a setting in Survivor) — climb 30 metres down a ladder into a massive waterhole fed by water flowing through lava tubes from the ocean (hold your breath and swim into a blue water cave, or right out into the lagoon for extra thrills).
Cycle your way along deserted roads in southern Upolu and Savaii, looking at Survivor sites. There are few cars on the road and the speed limit’s a leisurely 40km/h, making it safer for cycling here. You’ll ride through remote villages where children come out to say hello, stopping for swims to cool down.
Samoa is actually where surfing began (not Hawaii); and there’s still some of the Pacific’s best waves breaking onto deserted line-ups. These aren’t for beginners — all waves in Samoa break onto sharp coral. There are numerous surf camps (from simple bungalows to luxury villas) on the more populated island of Upolu and the big island of Savaii.
Take a 20 minute boat ride to an island with no roads, no cars and, until just a decade ago, no electricity. Located just off the western coast of Upolu, take a day tour to the tiny island of Manono and hike the island and snorkel its pristine lagoons and hunt for fish just like you’re on Survivor.
There are Survivor location sites all over the main island of Upolu — and most are easily accessible. All it takes is a small entrance fee to the local family who own the land. On the bigger, but less developed, island of Savaii you can go to significant landmarks used in the filming of the show, the best being the Taga Blowholes (where you can throw a coconut in a hole in the coral reef and watch it blow into the air) or Afu Asu Falls — the prettiest waterfall in the South Pacific.
US Survivor season 9 was filmed in Vanuatu in 2004.
Exploding volcanoes, cargo tribes who live as they always have in the forests and worship demi-gods like Prince Philip (yes, Prince Philip), land diving ceremonies (which bungy jumping originated from), abseiling down raging waterfalls — Vanuatu offers adventure tourists more than most destinations on Earth (little wonder Survivor chose to come here). Vanuatu is a mix of modern amenities (especially on the main island of Efate) and primitive, pagan villagers etching out a life in the forests. There are 83 islands in the archipelago, so how much adventure you’d like to have is entirely up to you. Most tourists won’t venture beyond Efate (where most of Survivor was filmed), but there’s so much more waiting on the islands of Santos, Tanna and beyond.
Vanuatu is an adventure lover’s mecca — there’s everything you could imagine available in these islands, from heart-in-your-mouth death defying stunts to easy thrills for the whole family. Abseil down a waterfall in cascades just outside the main tourist hub of Port Vila. At Mele Cascades you can descend down two 25 metre waterfalls set amongst lush tropical rainforest.
Take a day tour past traditional villages where locals flock to the road side to wave, to one of the world’s most active volcanoes that’s open to visitors. Hot rocks the size of small cars are spat out of Mt Yasur, and you’ll get to climb the volcano and see it erupting right on sunset.
Catch a short flight from Port Vila to witness one of the world’s truly amazing spectacles (contestants on Survivor were forced to try this). Each year to bless the yam harvest, local men on the island of Pentecost leap from makeshift scaffolding to the ground with vines attached to their ankles. Then go swimming with dugongs and turtles.
Fly 50 minutes from Port Vila to Espiritu Santo and dive the world’s best wreck dive. The SS Coolidge was a luxury passenger liner converted to a troop carrier for WWII and sunk just off the island. It’s completely intact, is 200 metres long and sits in between 20 and 72 metres of water.
Head to Mt Yasur on the island of Tanna to see where contestants rode horses beneath an erupting volcano. Tanna is also where the Ipai traditional village was set up on the show.
You don’t have to travel far outside the main tourist port of Port Vila to see where the series was filmed, settings begin just 20 minutes drive from the town — travel with Red Vanuatu, or check out check out Vanuatu Tourism’s website (www.vanuatutravel.info).
US Survivor series 14, 33 and 34 were filmed in Fiji.
Fiji is as wild as you’d like it to be. While many travellers won’t make it beyond the modern luxuries of Denarau Island (near the arrival point of Nadi) with its five-star resorts, there’s a lot more adventure to be had. There were cannibals in Fiji barely 80 years ago –retreat to the island’s highlands where locals still live in traditional villages for a glimpse at what might have been. Fiji has everything for adventure travellers looking for their very own Survivor experience. It’s home to some of the world’s best reef surf (the world surf tour visits once a year), its waters offer world’s best diving, fishing and snorkelling, while the jungle offers hikers, kayakers, rafters and mountain bikers endless thrills. Although the first Survivor series filmed here in 2004 put Fiji on the map, let’s not forget Castaway was filmed just next door on the island of Monuriki in the Manunucas.
You can do as the Survivor contestants did before — leaving the fancy resorts and hotels behind you to take on the jungle in the highlands of Fiji, or island-hop your way across the Mananucas, the setting for two of the Survivor series.
Take a rafting tour down the Upper Navua River on the main island of Viti Levu — choosing to sleep out overnight in tents — or go for a day tour. You’ll see a side of Fiji few ever see, journeying past subsistence farmers providing for their families in traditional villages along the river.
Surf just a few kilometres from the series 33 and 34 setting of Survivor at the iconic surf resort, Tavarua. A magnet for the world’s best surfers, Tavarua provides access to seven wave locations, including one of the world’s most revered waves, Cloudbreak.
Contestants on Survivor series 14 battled in the Macuatu province of Fiji’s second largest island, Vanua Levu, but the island is most famous for its diving. This is one of the Pacific’s best diving spots — famed for its steep wall dives, caves, soft coral and huge pelagics. Visit between April and October.
Charter a catamaran for the ultimate adventure holiday around Vanua Levu. Charter a boat and find your own private beaches and hike through jungle to 30-metre-high waterfalls all through the setting for Survivor at Macautu.
You can stay right amongst the settings of series 33 and 34 of Survivor in the Manamucas. There are 20 tiny islands here so it’s easy to access the sites, hire a speedboat for a tour to access all the islands from Port Denarau.
And stay at Mana Island Resort where some of the action was set and the crew stayed. The island itself is booked out by the Survivor crew for the next three years — up until 2019/2020 as they film the next few seasons in Fiji once again, travelBulletin has been told.
US Survivor series 13 was filmed here in 2006.
Did you know the concept for Survivor actually grew out of the failure of another? Technically, the Cook Islands began the whole Survivor phenomenon when the BBC series, Shipwrecked, was filmed here in 2000. It didn’t fare well on the ratings, but American producer Mark Burnett loved the concept, and conceived Survivor from it. Aitutaki in the Cook Islands looks like the sort of place Survivor belongs. It’s home to the South Pacific’s second most famous lagoon.
The most famous lagoon of all — Bora Bora’s in French Polynesia — is full of private island five-star resorts where Hollywood goes to honeymoon.
Aitutaki’s equilateral-shaped lagoon (each side is 12 kms long) is made up of 75 square kms that’s almost entirely uninhabited. There are 12 tiny islets (called motus) here — and only one island has accommodation on it at all (and it’s very low-key).
It’s easy to bring out your inner Survivor in Aitutaki. This is an island made for Robinson-Crusoe: stow away to an uninhabited islet and imagine you’re a contestant battling for the big prize.
Take either a full day lagoon cruise with others, or get dropped off for the day on your own private islet, or charter a speed-boat for a day or half-day. This is your chance to get as adventurous as you like — you can have a driver take you wherever you want, to climb coconut trees, snorkel the clear waters, or just loll for hours in the waters of your own private island.
Paddle, sail, kayak or kite-surf your way across one of the world’s most pristine lagoons. There’s nowhere safer on Earth — Aitutaki’s lagoon is protected from predators by its barrier reef, and the water is so clear you’ll clearly see the bottom even from 10 metres up. You can travel by your own steam to all the islets of the lagoon, including the setting for Survivor.
Retreat to Aitutaki to find inner peace on top of a lagoon. Join a stand-up paddleboard yoga retreat and live off coconuts and tropical fruits as you take your paddleboard out to sand spits that appear at low tide and uninhabited islands sprinkled throughout the lagoon.
Bring out your inner Polynesian warrior as you help construct a traditional feast at an underground oven (umukai) just as the contestants in Survivor had to do. The owner of this tour was even one of the main Polynesian consultants on Survivor — who ensured producers kept to Cook Island traditions. You’ll also get to see a sacred burial ground (marae).
It’s dead easy. Contestants spent 39 days on the uninhabited island of Moturakau, living off coconuts and crabs. It’s a tiny island you can walk across in minutes, but it’s beaches are beautiful and deserted, and the water that fringes it is fantastic for snorkelling and swimming. Get there by booking a day hire speedboat tour, or paddle-boarding, sailing, kayaking or kite-surfing there from the main island, eight kilometres south-east.