“The sooner we become less impressed with our life, our accomplishments, our career, our relationships, the prospects in front of us—the sooner we become less impressed and more involved with these things—the sooner we get better at them. We must be more than just happy to be here.”
― Matthew McConaughey, Greenlights

I started watching Survivor in 2001 when the first season aired in South Africa on SABC3. My now-husband/then-boyfriend and I had just moved into our first house and I had just got my second job in the television industry, working as a set dresser on the long-standing soap opera, Egoli – Place of Gold. We lived next to a wonderful neighbour and still good friend of ours, Cathy Sykes, who encouraged me to apply for the job at Egoli where she was the line producer on the show. Egoli would be my eventual step to AD/Director. But I digress… back to Survivor.

Every Tuesday evening we would order pizza and the four of us – myself, Handrie, Cathy and our housemate Frikkie, would be transported to Borneo where we would watch how Sue and Rudy and Richard and Kelly would outwit, outplay and outlast each other until Richard Hatch eventually became the sole survivor and took home $1million US. We were hooked! After the 13 weeks of that first season, we were looking forward to the next season which was already airing in the US.

As the seasons passed, we would have Pizza Tuesdays with Survivor. Over the years, pizza has kind of become synonymous with Survivor… for us at least. Then, in early 2006, when entries opened for the first season of Survivor South Africa, I said to Handrie, “I’m entering!”. At that point, the show was going to be produced by Endemol, a company with a global reputation.

The entries were a 21-page list of questions that needed to be answered. I did everything by the book – filled in the questionnaire, had a good headshot and shot of me in my best speedo attached, and drove to M-Net to hand-deliver the entry form… as per instructions. I would later learn that following instructions to the tee is kind of boring, and won’t necessarily get you noticed. Needless to say – I was not cast for season 1.

Season 1 was a fantastic ride – here were 16 South Africans in the jungles of Panama, playing my best reality television game. Albeit the slightly weird end game (with Dead Man’s Island), the season was fun, and M-Net announced the second season at the finale of the first… This time I had out-of-the-box plans to get onto the island.

The plan was to enter in the most notable way that I could. In the US (and now in SA as well) you have to send the producers a 3-minute video introducing yourself. So I whipped out our little camcorder and filmed a little 3-minute video which I edited myself. It was rather professional, even if I may be so myself. I filled in the exhaustive questionnaire  (the same one as the previous season, but this time I included a bit more of my wit. People like funny things, especially on paper.

Sidenote: The cardboard cutout of me would later be gifted to Handrie as a birthday gift while he was working for M-Net. It followed us to Cape Town and had many adventures in our offices. 

The cardboard cutout in our Cape Town offices

I am a bit of a sucker for punishment and decided that, if I could not play Survivor, I would report on it. And that is how the “unofficial Survivor SA podcast” came to life. Our housemate, Frikkie, and I would watch the episode weekly, and I would be invited to the media briefing and exit press conference at M-Net every week (I knew another publicist who knew the M-Net publicist). And then Frikkie and I would talk through the episode and dissect the decisions and choices that were made by the castaways and the production. In 2007, podcasts were still a very niche idea, and not a lot of people knew about them… but we did it.

At the end of 2009, Handrie had left M-Net and had started afrOkaans, a small boutique marketing & publicity company. I was working as a freelance television director on an Afrikaans Soap Opera. Our friend, Helen Smit, who at the time was the head of local productions for M-Net(?), and who knew that I loved Survivor, somehow got me an interview with the series director for Survivor SA, Donald Clarke, who was looking for new content producers.

I remember meeting with Donald in the courtyard at M-Net on a Friday afternoon, and he asked me a whole bunch of questions relating to storytelling and reality content producing. I tried to answer him as well as I could, but as I never before had content produced, I always brought it back to Survivor being a narrative, and that I  am very good at creating a narrative from events. I think what got me over the line was my knowledge about Survivor in general.

Afterwards, I found out that I was the third choice as a new content producer… Final 3. But you know, bronze is still on the podium…

So in November of 2009, I was on the crew of Survivor SA as a junior content producer, on my way to Mozambique for the first celebrity-driven version of the show. It was everything I hoped for and so much more. I loved being on the island with all the contestants, getting the stories, doing confessionals, going to challenges, and going back after a long day on the beach to hours and hours of content meetings that had each of the CP’s try and ‘outtell’ each other with the stories that happened that day. It was tough but incredibly rewarding.

Three events stood out for me. Two things that happened on the island would one day make me a decent producer of my favourite reality show, and one event that would eventually get afrOkaans to produce Survivor SA – but more on this later… The first one happened on day 5. It was late afternoon and a big storm was coming in when one of the contestants informed me that they were going to quit (there was a story about a rash on private parts involved…)

I remember that I was furious at this person. We had words at the top of a hill. I told them that these types of opportunities do not come often and that quitting on Survivor was like quitting on life. I was livid and had to remove myself from the situation, so I contacted the other content producer who was with me and excused myself. It took me a while, but when I got back I informed the castaway that they would have to leave the next day at the challenge. As the storm was coming in, we (the content producers) would have to sleep on the island. The next day, the castaway left the show unceremoniously. (Side note: Quitting on Survivor – at least in my bookis not on.)

The other memory that sticks out was about game mechanics. On Day 11, the sneaky castaway and radio host, Darren Maule, found a hidden immunity idol. At that stage, there were no rules attached to idols. Knowing that he was up for elimination that night, Darren asked me when he could play the idol, and how it would work. I told him that in other iterations, the idol will be played after the votes are cast, but before the votes are read, but that I would make sure of that fact. I radioed back to our head of content, and he told me that the idol must be played before the votes are cast.

In South Africa, Survivor: Guatemala had finished airing and in that season (the latest the production team had to reference) the hidden immunity idol was played before the votes were cast. However, being the fan that I am, I had seen the 12th season (Survivor: Panama – Exile Island) where the hidden immunity idols were changed to be played after the votes were cast but before they were read.

The “Darren Maule” hidden immunity idol and Crew Buff from Season 3 – Survivor SA: Santa Carolina.

When I found out that the idol had to be played before the votes were cast, I took it up with the head of content. “It does not make sense. Why would they have to play it before the votes? They are then safe for another vote. Where is the drama in that? If they play it after the votes were cast but before they were read, that would mean much more drama. Would you not agree?” I was very passionate, so much so that I suggested it to the Series Director who also shot me down. I then took it to Helen Smit (Head of the channel) who told me: “Just let it go. It is not your show.” As I was walking away I vividly remember how I thought: “Not yet.”

Helen and leroux on the beach in Mozambique for Season 3 – Survivor SA: Santa Carolina

After proving myself in Survivor SA’s third outing, I was asked back to be a content producer on Survivor SA: Maldives in July of 2010. afrOkaans by this time had changed from a marketing/publicity agency to a production house, producing a small show for a youth channel.

The new series director of Survivor SA Season 4, Warren Bleksley, and I had previously worked together on a live kids television show, where Warren directed and I was the AD/Floor manager. Warren had also met Handrie through Helen Smit, who connected us to develop a new dating show for M-Net, and Handrie and Warren hit it off.

We were in Kruger Park with my family when Warren gave Handrie a call. After about 2 hours on the phone, Handrie took me aside and told me that Warren had asked him to be the head of the content department for the upcoming season of Survivor. I was over the moon. Handrie’s love for the show and his masterful storytelling would make him the perfect candidate for the position. Handrie told me that Warren feels awful because the position should come to me, but that he needs me on the island. Needless to say, I phoned Warren back and told him that he had made the best decision for the show and that there was no ego with the decision. An elegant solution.

Tribal Council set for Season 4 – Survivor SA: Maldives.

We spent a glorious month of October 2010 in the Addu Atoll in the Maldives, filming the “Plebs vs Celebs” season. Handrie was like a duck to water – following narratives, putting out content reports for the CPs, and making sure that the story was being told authentically. Granted, he did not sleep for almost a month, but the season came together very well.

Nico and Handrie on Season 4 – Survivor SA: Maldives.
The Content Department on Season 4 – Survivor SA: Maldives.
leroux and Bev testing the final immunity challenge on Season 4 – Survivor SA: Maldives.
leroux and Nico on Season 4 – Survivor SA: Maldives.

When the live Survivor SA: Maldives finale was filmed at the end of May 2011, there was no announcement of another season, with M-Net announcing that they will be following the very popular path of Masterchef Australia and producing a South African version of the show. Both Handrie and I were to work on a few seasons of Masterchef before we would get the call from Warren again, saying that M-Net was going to commission another season of Survivor and if we would be available.

We came to Survivor SA: Champions very late in the development. M-Net had pulled in SuperSport (the major sporting channels in South Africa) and wanted to have a season that would pull the sports fans into M-Net. The idea of the two sporting captains for each tribe had already been signed off and publicized when entries opened for Season 5. Open call auditions were held across the country and we were contracted to help with the casting of a brand-new drift of castaways.

Nico and Handrie on season 5 – Survivor SA: Champions in Malaysia
leroux, Nico and Handrie on season 5 – Survivor SA: Champions in Malaysia

The season had some real break-out characters, some of who would later grace Survivor SA’s first returnee season. Longer episodes (68 min) allowed the content and editing team to tell more rounded stories for characters, which helped establish the great cast. The filming concluded after 27 days on the island at the end of October 2013, and episode 1 aired a mere 2 months afterwards on the 19th of January. With a total of 18 episodes, the season ended on May 18, 2014. With no announcement of a next season, and Endemol closing its doors a year later, Survivor SA was over. Or so everyone thought…

On the set of “Power Couple South Africa”.

After afrOkaans produced the feel-good reality format Power Couple SA for M-Net in 2015 in Cape Town, the company moved their main base of operations to the beautiful Mother City, with our new line producer and friend Darren Lindsay. Darren and I had worked together in Mozambique on Survivor SA: Santa Carolina, and then again on a reality show for kykNET called Tussen Die Lyne. In any universe, Darren is the best guy you will meet and a true genius when it comes to producing!

Handrie & Darren on the set of "Skulls & Roses" - a facilitation for Amazon Prime India in South Africa.

Handrie and Darren, who now had joined afrOkaans permanently and had produced and facilitated for the likes of BBC, SkyOne and Amazon Prime, made their way to several markets overseas, were invited by friends at BBC to the Edinburgh Film Festival in July of 2016.

Now before I continue –
I need to take you back to Mozambique in November 2009
and tell you about a third event.

The event was a meeting of someone who would play a pivotal part in afrOkaans producing Survivor SA. Introducing, Julia Dick. Julia was (and still is) the format custodian of Survivor worldwide. Julia has been with Survivor ever since Charlie Parsons created the format that we today produce. In 2009, after a heavy day on the beach, I walked into the crew bar and was introduced to Julia, a blonde-haired fair-skinned woman with a big smile on her face. 

Julia was (and still is) one of the nicest humans to ever grace this planet. And she was (and still is) one of the most knowledgeable people about Survivor. Julia has travelled around the globe to consult Survivor productions and share her infinite knowledge on all things, Survivor. As part of the format bible, you get Julia to come and visit, and our paths would cross again in the Maldives and the South China seas as we worked on seasons 4 and 5. She would also meet Handrie in the Maldives and again in Malaysia and the two of them got on like a house on fire.

Nico with Klarese (stylist) and Julia in Samoa on the filming of Season 7 – Survivor SA: Island of Secrets
leroux & Julia in Samoa on the filming of Season 7 – Survivor SA: Island of Secrets

Back to Handrie and Darren, visiting the Edinburg Film Festival… Just before they left on their work visit, I aired the idea of contacting Julia – just to find out what was going on with regards to the format of Survivor in South Africa. Both Handrie and Darren told me it would be a long shot, and as much as we would love to do the format, M-Net would not go for it at all. “So don’t even bother sending an email to her – it is not going to happen,” Handrie said to me as he and Darren boarded the plane to London.

But, I’m a little bit of a rebel and a ‘kansvatter’ (Afrikaans for ‘chancer’). I contacted Julia on LinkedIn and sent her a long message (it’s still in my LinkedIn inbox!), hoping that she could give some insight into the format rights of Survivor in South Africa. Not long after I sent the message, Julia responded by email and informed me that the rights had lapsed from M-Net’s side and that it was available. I immediately asked Julia if Handrie and Darren could come and see her discuss, and as luck would have it – she was in London in the next week when Handrie and Darren would fly into London to return to South Africa. 

The date and time were set up and then I informed Handrie and Darren that they had one more meeting in London… with the format custodian of Survivor. They took the meeting and we invested in acquiring the rights to shop the format around for a season. 

So we had an option for the format rights. Now to find the broadcaster who would take a chance on another season of Survivor SA. At this point, we were willing to produce the show as an AFP (Advertiser Funded Production), just to produce Survivor SA and get our fandom on. We would find sponsors and get the money to make the show – all M-Net needed to do was give us a letter of intent. 

A massive task… but we were up for it! And it was with that energy and attitude that we walked into M-Net and walked out with a commission for what would become Survivor SA: Philippines (Season 6). The rest, as they say, is history.

Crew Photo on Season 6 – Survivor SA: Philippines
Nico on Tribal Council set on Season 6 – Survivor SA: Philippines
Shoot Day 1 on Season 6 – Survivor SA: Philippines.

I think Mr McConaughey got it right by stating that “we must be more than just happy to be here.” Striving to always create brilliance, and be better in the next round, is what we always go for. Get real. Work hard. Be human.