Tom Gliatto
February 05, 2001 12:00 PM

Three days after being dumped off in the middle of gorgeous nowhere—a eucalyptus-scented wilderness called Goshen, fertile hunting ground for Aborigines four millennia ago—the rival tribes of Survivor: The Australian Outback peer down from a 30-ft. bluff into a pond fed by cascades and drained by rapids. The temperature beneath a cloudless sky is a broiling 110°. Below, two crates, one per tribe, bob in the black water. Each contains two blankets to ward off nighttime temperatures that go as low as 35°. One by one the Kuchas and the Ogakors (Aborigine for “kangaroos” and “crocodiles”) must jump into the pond, swim out to their designated crate, hang on and maneuver it down the rapids. The winning tribe gets all the blankets; the losers get to shiver. In case of medical emergency (a full-frontal belly flop could be fatal) Dr. Adrian Cohen, a physician with the show, has donned a wet suit and waits below. “This,” says Cohen, “is serious stuff.”

That thought has already occurred to Rodger Bingham, a high school shop teacher and farmer from Crittenden, Ky., who at 53 finds himself the oldest player in this new 14-week Down Under version of the CBS reality show that was such a sensation Up Here last summer. (Last year’s oldest combatant was retired Navy SEAL Rudy Boesch, age 72.) Bingham, the married father of a 29-year-old daughter, can barely swim. But plummeting? That he can do. To cheers from his fellow Kuchas, Bingham rockets feet first into the water. Resurfacing, he dog-paddles toward the crate but barely makes any headway—until tribemate Michael Skupin, a software company president from White Lake, Mich., helps him along.

“Was he scared? Oh yeah,” says series host and official onlooker Jeff Probst, 39, back for a second tour of duty. “But the best adventures in your life have high highs and low lows.” Rodger beams. “Well, what do you know,” he gasps, dripping wet. “I did it.”

Now get ready for TV’s equivalent of a high-dive cannonball. Survivor II is the inevitable follow-up to Survivor I, last summer’s sleeper hit, whose Aug. 23 finale drew 52 million viewers—topping the year’s Oscar ratings and losing only to the Super Bowl. How fitting, then, that the sequel, which has been eclipsed on the air by the arrival of lesser imitators such as FOX’s Temptation Island and ABC’s The Mole, should premiere in the optimal slot behind the Jan. 28 Super Bowl XXXV. Then, four days later, the show moves to Thursdays at 8 p.m. (ET)—a scheduling gambit so bold that nervous suits at rival NBC are expanding Friends to 40 minutes, followed by 20 minutes of live Saturday Night Live sketches for the four episodes that air during sweeps. “Friends is in the Top 5—that’s a tough one to top,” says media analyst Tim Spengler at Initiative Media in Los Angeles. But if Survivor II remains “as continually compelling as the original,” he says, beating the seven-year-old sitcom “is quite possible.”

CBS certainly thinks so. Survivor, which proved itself king of the jungle, is being followed by a sequel that wants to be king of the world. Everything is on a bigger scale. The new Tribal Council, that dread summit where contestants are voted off week by week, is constructed of mammoth Stonehenge-like slabs perched on a bluff with a 1,000-ft. drop. This Outback landscape, 200 miles south of Cairns, is more diverse, lush and spectacular than the first Survivor’s Borneo island. The wildlife along the Herbert River, where the tribes have set up camp, is also more dangerous, with venomous Golden Orb spiders and five species of deadly snakes. “All of them,” says Dr. Cohen, “are incredibly mean.”

Those aren’t the only slinky creatures out there. Unfortunately for the aging cuties over at Friends, the Outback contestants are on the whole sexier than the original band. (The producers “would have loved to have another 72-year-old Navy SEAL,” says Probst. “There wasn’t one this time.”) Trumbull, Conn., native Alicia Calaway, 32, winner of the 1994 Ms. Connecticut Amateur Natural Bodybuilding Competition and now a physical trainer in Manhattan, “has incredible shoulders and butt,” says fellow trainer Peter Meister. And according to his mother, Bonnie Parish, Jeff Varner, 34, a Manhattan Internet project manager (and former cheer-leading captain at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill), has “beautiful blueish-green eyes, gorgeous teeth, a beautiful smile, really smooth olive skin and good bone structure.” Jerri Manthey, 30, a Los Angeles-based bartender and aspiring actress—she played Vincent D’Onofrio’s wife in Showtime’s That Championship Season two years ago—is called a femme fatale by the crew. Immaculately trim, “she loves camping,” says her friend Noa Shaw, an assistant director. “That’s the one thing she does ferociously.”

Survivor, of course, requires a special kind of ferocity, subtle but cruel. Having closely studied the Machiavellian maneuvers of last summer’s $1 million-winning champ, Richard Hatch, 39, the 16 new players are already mulling over the alliances they’ll broker or, if necessary, break. Before she left home for the adventure, Brighton Township, Pa., native Amber Brkich, 22, a class of ’00 grad of Westminster College in New Wilmington, Pa., received some advice from her father, Valentine Brkich, a bank systems analyst. “You may not have liked Richard,” he told Amber, who last year traveled to the Galapagos Islands and Ecuador, “but he knew how to play the game. The bottom line is, you want to win.”

The result: By Day 3 members of the Kucha camp have debated the issue of back-stabbing, with Bingham protesting, “That’s not what this is about.”

He’s right. It’s more about the instant celebrity accorded virtually all of the first 16 survivors, who landed everything from bit TV roles to modeling gigs. Crusty Rudy Boesch even got that ultimate talisman of fame, his own action figure. No wonder the sequel attracted 50,000 applicants. Some of the current crop of survivors may prove more inherently fascinating than others. Debb Eaton, 45, a prison corrections officer from Milan, N.H., was married to a state trooper who died three years ago. Now, according to two friends, she is romantically involved with her late husband’s son, 34. “They were never like mother and son,” says one friend, a former neighbor. “They have a great relationship.”

Another noteworthy contestant is Tina Wesson, 40, a mother of two from Knoxville, Tenn., who has been struggling with rheumatoid arthritis for almost five years. She already ran a marathon in Dublin. Recalls her husband, Dale Wesson, 42, a construction-company vice president: “She told me, ‘If it affects me 20 years later, so be it. Right now, I’m going to live.’ ”

Oh, and one more thing: Tina is ruthless. “If she can kill me in a game,” says her husband, “she will.”

Survivor II’s 42-day fight to the fittest, which taped from Oct. 23 to Dec. 3, started off with a bang (and a little barfing) with the contestants being left behind after a deliberately stomach-flopping plane landing. By Day 4, though, the 15 remaining players—one got the boot on Day 3—had settled down to coping with such fundamental Out-back trials as avoiding sunstroke.

The Kuchas’ Elisabeth Filarski, 23, a Boston shoe designer (and marathon runner), sensibly donned the multicolored headdress she made last summer while watching the show and dreaming of being on the sequel. The Ogakors’ Kel Gleason, a 33-year-old Army Captain and Bosnian war veteran currently stationed in Fort Hood, Texas, whittled a large stick down to a sharp point. It might someday spear a fish. Oddly enough, given the snakes, the players in both camps ran around barefoot—although this might be expected from Kucha member Kimmi Kappenberg, 28, a freelance TV production assistant (and part-time bartender) from Long Island. “She has never been squeamish about snakes, frogs and turtles,” says her father, Robert Kappenberg, 55, a retired aerospace worker. “We used to go out snake-hunting.”

The Ogakors have so far managed to put up a laughably flimsy shelter of four posts roofed over with a Texas flag provided by Colby Donaldson, 26, a car customizer who recently moved his business from San Angelo, Texas, to Dallas. “One storm and it’ll be scary living under a flag,” says Rob Porter, an Australian outdoorsman who gave the players a briefing and a guidebook on local wilderness living.

The Kuchas’ shelter is a more substantial affair, with a tarp roof and a wall of planks to break the wind. And the Kuchas are better hunters. “They’ve caught freshwater prawns and mussels, and now they’ve caught two fish,” says Porter. “The Kuchas really excelled.” Michael Skupin, 39, who brought home the tribe’s first fish, has shown definite leadership potential. The born-again Skupin, twice married and the father of three, sounds from business partner Greg Swan’s description as if he should run for office. His first priority, says Swan, “is God, then his family, then his country, his career and then himself.” (Before he left for Australia, he also made sure to complete his absentee ballot.)

Mike is joined in his fishing expeditions by Nick Brown, 23, a Harvard Law student and sometime model from Steilacoom, Wash. Brown, who has ROTC training, wades into the river without apparent concern over the two species of crocodile known to visit it. “He never freaks out,” says Ayodele Carroo, a friend at Harvard. “He keeps things in perspective.”

But the Ogakors aren’t exactly what the Australians call “sooks” (crybabies) either. They have their own retired police officer, former Washington, D.C, inspector Maralyn Hershey, 52—whose nickname on the force was Mad Dog, for her tenacity in chasing down crooks. The never married champion equestrian “was aggressive,” Joyce Leland, a former D.C. police officer, says of this real survivor, a recovering alcoholic for more than two decades. “And don’t run on her, for God’s sake, because she will hound you till she gets you.” The Ogakors also possess the potentially towering advantage of 7-ft. South Dakota native Mitchell Olson, 23, an aspiring singer-songwriter who works as an office temp in Manhattan. But, warns his mother, Joann, Mitchell hates to be reminded of his height. “And he doesn’t play basketball,” she adds.

And, should they ever manage to match the Kuchas in fishing skill, their team includes a professional chef, Keith Famie, 40, a divorced father of two from West Bloomfield, Mich. In a career that has included cooking in Monte Carlo and Brussels, doing a TV cooking show in Detroit and owning his own restaurants, “he was willing to take incredible risks with food,” says his friend Kevin Mains of Albuquerque. For the conquering Ogakors, Keith has offered to make—paella?

Half an hour away by dirt road, the production crew’s camp seems as luxe as the Canyon Ranch spa. Staffers sleep in individual pup tents, have access to modern electronic conveniences (including e-mail) and are served catered meals of roast chicken and steak. “In the middle of nowhere we’ve created a city,” says Jeff Probst. “I get to go back to my little hut and have a diet Coke.”

But out on the lip of the bluff, Probst is drawn into survival mode by a dare. Jerri the actress looks up at him and calls out in a flirty voice, “You gonna jump?”

“Yeah,” he yells back enthusiastically. He pulls off his shirt and shoes, runs to the ledge and leaps into the pond.

Tom Gliatto

Mark Dagostino in the Australian Outback, Fannie Weinstein in New York City and bureau reports

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