Survivor has filmed in almost 20 different countries since it started in 2000, and this week in our special feature our Ozlet Julian Groneberg recaps his adventure visiting the site of the Australian Outback fifteen years on. Just how difficult the location really was to get to, why the Herbert River is the perfect place for a camping trip, and what filming meant for the region are just some of the things he learned along the way. Read on to go 'back to the Outback' with Survivor Oz.
Like many others, Survivor Australia was the season that began my fascination with Survivor. In early 2001 I can remember the press coverage in the lead up to the second season being filmed locally in Australia. While only 14, I can first remember the rumours, which were later verified in news articles such as Queensland’s Courier Mail (the state newspaper where the series was filmed) and later coverage from the other side of the world in the NY Times. As any fan will know, Survivor was at the height of its popularity during 2001, and having such a massive production filmed in what felt like my backyard was an exciting thing for me, and especially the people of sleepy northern Queensland. It wasn’t just me that was intrigued and excited though. The attempted secrecy of CBS hiding a massive production, even in the remote backcountry of North Queensland still proved difficult. As rumours swirled around the region, and a convoy of production vehicles arrived, many curious locals planned on gatecrashing the massive arrival of activity that would be filmed in the bush.
It turned out that rocking up to the area while filming took the season was taking place proved entirely possible. After all not all the land along the Herbert River was strictly privately owned, and sections were in fact part of the Girringun National Park. In late 2000, One Brisbane journalist, David Fletcher Moulton, brought enough equipment to camp near where the Survivor’s would be for three weeks. Undetected, he watched the game from afar spending 3 weeks along the river under the cover of bushland.
Myself having visited far north Queensland many times, I was acutely aware of how relatively close the contestants had been to where my Dad lived at Mission Beach. Jerri and Colby’s Great Barrier Reef reward was filmed on one of the island’s just off the Cassowary Coast, and as the crow flies the castaways were a relatively short distance by helicopter. On each of my visits in the tropics, I couldn’t get past the knowledge that about 150kms away, one of the most watched seasons of a reality show of all time had been filmed. My awareness of the region, coupled with my obsession for the show, and the fact that season two is among my all-time favourites meant that I knew one day I had to go there. 15 years after filming wrapped up, this was finally that time.
The location aspect of Survivor has always been something that’s fascinated me about the show, and played a major role in the theme of each season, giving a new feel. After visiting the Mayan Ruins at Tikal and Yaxha in Narranjo National Park in Guatemala in 2013, and the Vanuatu beaches of Lelepa Island (where challenges were filmed) and Efate in 2014, this year I made it my mission to visit my third Survivor location. This one much closer to home, but by no means would be as simple as just jumping on a plane. This was still a trip that required a fair bit of planning.
Despite not being true outback, there’s no doubt the tropical north, and the inland region where the contestants camped is very remote and hard to get to. It was not until my own internet research and Google Earth later that I pinpointed exactly where along the Herbert Research between Cairns and Townsville the show was shot, and how exactly to get there.
There was no way I could get to Goshen Station, wedged about 100kms inland between the tiny townships of Mt Garnet and Kennedy, without a four-wheel drive. So it was that we hired the FJ Cruiser, a ride that would no doubt be a good win if Survivor still offered the car reward challenge. The car would definitely be getting a good workout. After leaving at 6am from Cairns, we only got to Gunnawarra Road past Mt Garnet at almost 10. Before getting back to the coast at 6pm that evening, we’d clocked up almost 600kms exploring the region, many on sketchy roads that traversed Australia’s Great Dividing Range.
It was a strange feeling knowing that of all places, this otherwise unremarkable Australian bush had been gazetted for the filming of season two, and Mount Garnet pop 437 was the closest accessible police station and town to the contestants. According to a travel writer who spoke to locals in Mt Garnet, there was a sense that the town felt overlooked, if not shunned, by the production. Despite more than 300 crew working on the show, few locals were employed. After spending a couple of months in the region, barely any crew stopped in at Mt Garnet, and any thoughts that the show might bring prosperity to the struggling former tin mining town were quickly dashed.
After the bitchumen road turned to gravel, and the temperature reading on the car crept towards 30 degrees, it was evident we’d barely be seeing anyone else for the rest of the day, bar a few recreational quad bikers and cattle ranchers along Wairuna Road and Cashmere-Kirrama Road. What we did see was live and dead kangaroos, a random emu, and hordes of cattle, many of them blocking the road at times. Goshen Station after all, is a cattle ranch, and just like the adjacent ranches of Wyoming, Glen Eagle and Gunnawarra, sprawling cattle ranches dominate the landscape.
Goshen Station itself is a gigantic 48,000 acres, but despite its massive size, is not the biggest in the area – not even by a long shot. For the owners, it must have been a pretty sweet deal when you get a call from Mark Burnett and get offered a reported $186,000 dollars for the use of some of land for a couple of months. What was evident in the show, and also through researching my expedition is that during the wet season, the whole area is inaccessible from Mt Garnet, as the Cashmere crossing which crosses the Herbert River floods. Luckily I had checked the Bureau of Meteorology river readings, and travelled at the end of the dry season. When the mighty Herbert River floods, as we saw towards the end of the 42 days in the ‘Outback,’ getting in and out of Goshen Station is almost impossible without a helicopter. In years since the show aired, the owners of Goshen Station and other cattle ranches have often been completely cut off throughout the wet season, due to the road to over Cashmere crossing flooding, and the Kirrama range road to the coast being damaged by cylcones.
After we reached the junction of Gunnawarra and Wairuna Roads, we headed on the west bank of the Herbert River for 53kms towards the Princess Hills camping site, a section of Girringun National Park, and also the site where the Barramundi Camp was located. Until the Herbert River came into view at the Princess Hills camping area, I didn’t necesarily feel like I was anywhere close to the set of season two. Sure, I could quickly identify the scrub and sunburnt countryside as very reminiscent of the bushland shown on screen, but after seeing the Herbert River and the river beaches synonymous with the show come into view, the fact that, finally I was actually here crystalised.
There were so many reminders from season two that flashed into my mind just standing at the Barramundi camp. Remnants of a fire from previous campers could only make me think of Skupin’s fire incident, despite the fact it happened upstream a few kilometres at the Kucha camp. Seeing the dry beach along the riverbed only bring to mind Jerri’s attempts to flirt with Colby. And of course, the island in the middle of the river, brought to mind the image of a raging torrent of water, as Tina swam out to retrieve the rice. The fact that nature called when I was exploring the banks around the Herbert River brought back Nick Brown’s premature evacuation after the shock of eating proper food during the show’s first survivor auction.
By this time it was already creeping towards 2 o’clock so the next stop was planned to be the Tribal Council set, perched atop the Herbert River Falls. Sadly though, it wasn’t meant to be. Despite researching access roads to the falls on Google Earth, and following the FJ inbuilt cruiser’s GPS, upon arriving to the Herbert River Falls access road, a massive padlocked gate and electric fence declared ‘No Entry.’
It was a little heartbreaking to know I would be just 10 or so kilometres from where tribal council was filmed, yet on this occasion would never be able to stand atop the waterfalls. It was after all privately owned land. The only other option would be to try and navigate the falls via the river on foot, and with limited time, and no knowledge of exactly how far away it was, or if that would be even possible due to the river height, it wasn’t going to be possible on this trip.
Driving past the homestead at Goshen Station I was almost tempted to rock up unannounced to the property owners, and beg for access to the falls. I thought better of it. We saw a sign saying no more pig hunting on the property, and for the second time that day Skupin came to mind. I wondered if they’d had other people visit to shoot pigs after the show, or if they were just trying to secure their private land.
So instead of the Herbert River falls, we drove on to Blencoe Falls, atop the Herbert River gorge, a spectacular waterfall that its one of Australia’s highest when its several drops are taken into account. It mightn’t have been gushing at it’s most powerful on this occasion, but it was a spectacular sight, and the surrounding gorge featured in many aerial shots during the show.
After our final photo opportunity at the falls, it was time to get back into the car and head back down the treacherous Kirrama Range, before the light completely faded. By this time, it was all a bit surreal.Visiting the filming location of Survivor Australia was akin to a Survivor fans pilgrimage to Mecca, giving me the opportunity to connect more with one of my all time favourite Survivor seasons. It was a huge day trip, a massive off-road adventure, and a great chance to explore the region that Survivor had dubbed the Australian Outback almost 15 years to the day after filming commenced on October 23, 2000. I’ve always subscribed to the argument that location is a major factor in a great season of Survivor, and never was location as influential than during the show’s classic seasons and especially in season 2.
While the area could hardly qualify as true outback, its definitely some of the most remote land in Australia that I’ve ever set foot in. It was a chance to acquaint myself with the location that played such a massive part in the season, and as massive fan visiting the location made me feel closer to the show than ever before, even after visiting the Vanuatu and Guatemala filming locations. As the location can be seen as the 17th castaway, there’s no doubt that the ‘Australian Outback’ was one of the most unique and rugged locations we had seen. And even though I’ve checked it off the list, its somewhere that I’m already planning to return to. Next time, for an extended camping trip like the castaways, a hike to the tribal council falls, and maybe even a white water rafting expedition along the Herbert River.
I can only hope the Australian dollar falls further, making it affordable to film here like it was in during October-November 2000. 31 seasons into the show, and many seasons being filmed multiple times in a location, another Australian filmed series of the US reality juggernaut is always possible, if not probable. Who knows, maybe next time I can even try to crash the party while they are filming… I can dream can’t I?
All Photos and Videos Taken By Julian Groneberg