As we stepped off the plane in Port Blair after a three grueling flights from Johannesburg, we were handed a message – Survivor Andaman Islands had begun! Our first challenge – collect enough cash for the rest of the competition and make our way to Neil Island. So much for easing into things! The next three hours were a blur as we rushed from ferry office to ferry office, ATM to ATM and Xerox machine to Xerox machine. The cash crisis in India (where 87% of cash was declared to be legal tender no longer – without any warning) meant that most ATMs were closed and those that were open limited withdrawals to INR2500 (around USD35). Fortunately we had secreted away some Rupees that we bought in Dubai, but despite our best efforts we still came up a bit short. We would have to take our chances on Neil Island. The ferry situation was no easier, but after several false turns we turned up neck and neck with the German team, had a mad rush (with actual running) to find a working Xerox machine, and eventually managed to secure some last minute tickets on the government ferry. As we collapsed into our seats we realized that Survivor was going to be a lot tougher than we expected.
When we landed we were told to trek overland to our base on the western part of the 19 square km island. Hot, hungry and tired we arrived and began the task of settling in. The first thing to do was to name our camp, and after some discussion we settled on Neha Palace. Next up was finding food, a task made easier thanks to some friendly locals who pointed us in the direction of some promising looking areas of the surrounding forest. While scavenging for food we found our next message, setting out the following days challenge – find a set of scuba gear and brave the surrounding seas to find and correctly identify a series of sea creatures. Anne and I had suspected that we would be facing a scuba challenge and had been practicing extensively over the past two years. We had this one in the bag.
The following morning we awoke to cloudy skies and a choppy sea – not ideal conditions for the upcoming elimination challenge. We met our competitors on the beach – a young couple from the UK. The rules were explained, and in addition to creature identification, points were to be awarded for coping with strong current, air consumption and buoyancy control – all areas Anne and I were fairly competent in. Our competitors nervousness and fidgeting suggested that they were not. The first dive combined depth (32m), a howling current and low visibility, with a few nasty surprises thrown in at the last minute. For Anne it was a extremely painful jelly fish sting on her exposed leg and for me it was a dodgy fin strap, severely reducing our ability to cope with the current. Our training kicked in as we hit maximum depth and we quickly found shelter out of the current and calmly assessed our situation. By avoiding the current we could largely neutralize both our disabilities, while our less experienced competitors faced the full might of the rushing water. It wasn’t long before their air began to to run low and they were forced to surface, leaving us time to spot a few extra fish and slowly make our way up.
With the first part of the challenge safely in the bag, the UK team needed a strong performance on the next dive. Conditions were much easier, with no current and a maximum depth of 20m, but once again our combined experience won out and it was another clear victory for us. Relieved to have avoided a potentially disastrous visit to tribal council, we headed back to our camp wondering what the producers had in store for us next. Our only clues were a couple of Kindles that we found under our shelter….
The loud crash of a deluge on the roof of our shelter in the middle of the night signaled the start of the next reward challenge, and all was explained in a sodden note tied to a nearby tree. The Cyclone Vardah challenge combined mental, physical and psychological tests – survive three days of non-stop rain without killing each other, and read as many books as possible from cover to cover on our Kindles. The reward – beer and some wifi. With no time to spare (and nowhere to go) we got stuck in to the books, as the rain poured down and the wind howled. Our foraging opportunities were severely limited with only short forays from our increasingly sodden camp being possible. After 36 hours of rain the rising waters started creeping closer and closer to our shelter and we soon found ourselves completely surrounded by water (and the occasional fish). Fortunately we built our shelter higher than normal and so we were not in any danger from the floods, but we had no doubt that our fellow competitors would not be as lucky. By 48 hours we were making good progress on the books but the strain of being cooped up was starting to show, and I was becoming increasingly more wary of my teammate. The tension was eased by several longer trips out of camps during the occasional dry periods, but we were desperately counting down the hours, minutes and seconds to the end of the grueling 72 hours. Our completion of the challenge was heralded by a single ray of sunshine piercing the grey clouds, and we hugged each other in joy – we had survived, and were getting some beer.
Sensing the strain that all the competitors were under, the producers gave everyone a chance to relax for 24 hours and explore the island before the final challenge commenced. We bartered for some bicycles, which gave us the opportunity to reach some of the more secluded spots. We were also surprised to also find a working ATM, something which we took full advantage of. More relaxed but still nervous, we received the final challenge, which would determine the ultimate winner – escape from the island!
What would have been a simple task a few days before had suddenly turned into a seemingly impossible one. We racked our brains, trying to solve the puzzle. The high winds and rough seas had put an end to the ferries, and although there appeared to be occasional helicopters coming and going, we lacked both the connections and the necessary melodrama to make it on to one. Wild rumors of Navy ships being deployed abounded, but nothing came of it. We tried to contact the local constabulary for assistance without luck, and in the end we were forced to regularly visit the departure area in the hope of something turning up. As the hours turned into days we felt the title of Survivor Champions slowly slipping through our fingers. With failure looming, we turned up at the departure area to find a crowd of competitors excitedly claiming to have found a way off. This could be our chance to get back into the competition! Excitedly we pushed our way to the front, only to have our hopes dashed at the final hurdle – we had failed to collect a crucial booking for an imminent flight. We could only look on in despair as the island slowly emptied around us. The tribe had spoken. We had lost.
We were eventually collected and ferried back, a little bruised and battered, but still proud of our achievements. We said a sad good bye to our favourite foraging areas – Parfect near the departure area where we had many delicious breakfasts, Green Gold on road 1 near our shelter, Sea Shell where we enjoyed the rewards of our beer and wifi challenge, Blue Sea near Ramnagar Beach for beer, bikes and food, the Jalebi man at the market each evening, and the afternoon samosa joints near the market. Our shelter, Neha Palace, kept us high and dry through wind and rain, and the crew at India Scuba Explorers (http://www.indiascubaexplorers.com/) looked after us on our scuba challenge, as well as told us about some of the best foraging areas. This adventure was over, but our next was just about to begin.
Stay tuned for scenes from our next episode…