The Rio Novo river flows past both Survivor Tocantins tribe camps, base camp, and Ponderosa, and has hosted the first two challenges. That same challenge location will also host other challenges this season–unless the river rises too much, in which case there will be a number of land-based puzzles.
In Brazil, Survivor challenge producer John Kirhoffer told me that “for all of our river challenges coming up, we have back-ups: giant puzzles that we can do on land.” That was because of the impending rainy season, and the show’s previous experience with a river location: “When we were in Australia the first time, the rainy season came, and camp got flooded away, challenges got washed away,” he said. “Also, if the river rises too much and becomes unsafe to put contestants in–that water, once you get some water flowing, it can be dangerous–if it becomes a state where it’s just too dangerous to put people in, we’ll just move inland and do some land challenges.”
Because of the river, Kirhoffer said he prefers the Brazilian location–even though it makes his job more difficult. “One of the things about Gabon that I loved was we had carte blanche on wherever we wanted to go. We’d just drive around and if we saw an area that we wanted, all we had to do was go out and drive a stake in the ground and just start making stuff,” he said.
But in Tocantins, “because it’s a state park and the Brazilian environmental team is very serious about protecting their land, everything is a detailed process to get approvals. … Here, we find a place, we have to tell our location manager, we have to take pictures, GPS coordinates, and then details about what we’re going to do. Then the government looks at it, they have a meeting about it, and then say whether we can or can’t. Back there we could just take a backhoe and dig a pool in and not worry about it. Here, we need to leave roots; we can take a lawn mower and mow down to the roots, but we can’t tear up the root structure because it’s a desert environment and they have to make sure it grows back,” he said.
The attention to detail on the challenges is pretty incredible, and not just in the intricate design of the props, puzzles, or whatever. After running the rehearsal of the first immunity challenge, I spent some time with the Dream Team, and at last week’s challenge location, we walked in and stood on the mats, serving as stand-ins as Jeff Probst and producers talked about how it’d look. Before leaving, we were asked to fill sand bags that were going to be used to temporarily sink the floating buoys so that Basket Brawl wouldn’t be visible in the helicopter shots of A River: Run Through It, the first immunity challenge. That’s because they were right next to each other, just around a bend in the river.
As to the other challenges coming up, the only one I saw sitting around was the block challenge that will be on tonight’s episode. But look for some familiar challenges, as Kirhoffer told me, “We’re repeating a couple this season: we have the blindfolded challenge, we have an endurance challenge that we’ve done before.”
I asked about repeating challenges, and he said he was initially reluctant to do the same challenge twice. “In the early days, I didn’t like to repeat anything. [Executive producer] Mark [Burnett], from season two, was like, ‘We can repeat this, we can repeat that. People love it, it’s good to have staples.’ Okay, but we’d rather come up with new stuff.” Kirhoffer said that, at meetings, Burnett says, “‘Every season, we need some classics, we need some classics.’ And he’s right, people at home they go, ‘Oh, I remember when Rupert did this, I remember when Yau-Man did this.’ So we have a few kick-ass classics,” Kirhoffer said. “We always modify them a bit to represent the new area and the new season, so they’re never identical, but they’re close.”
I also asked Kirhoffer if he takes the environment into consideration: Does the 120-degree heat affect how difficult the challenges are? “No friggin’ way,” he said. “We just make them as strenuous as ever.”