In this edition of The Confessional, Justin Walter reveals what he saw and discovered on Pulau Tiga, the island that hosted the first season of Survivor 15 years ago.
As Survivor: Second Chance comes to an end, there’s no doubt it will go down as one of the best seasons in the show’s 15-year history. The fact that in season 31 Survivor is better than ever speaks highly to its longevity as a reality TV game show and even more importantly a lasting cultural phenomenon.
It’s hard to believe that Survivor premiered over 15 years ago, on May 31, 2000. On that day, along with millions across America, I became a fan. And since then, I’ll admit that my love for Survivor has become an obsession—and passion—which inspired my recent travels to Pulau Tiga where Survivor: Borneo was filmed.
Over the past month, I’ve pinched myself a million times to make sure my trip was real and looking back I’ve started to understand the significance of my Survivor superfan journey.
From the moment I caught my first glimpse of Pulau Tiga as my boat sped toward it, I was overtaken by a wide range of emotions—excitement, disbelief, curiosity, adrenaline. How could this this be real? There I was in the South China Sea—the same location as Jeff Probst during the series premiere—about to physically swim in the same waters and walk on the same beaches as the original 16 castaways.
I was overwhelmed. This was a Survivor dream come true.
I can’t thank Pulau Tiga Resort, especially Julius, enough for being incredible hosts for my stay. From the moment I arrived until my departure they did everything imaginable to cater to my superfan status. Just hours after arriving, they gave me a kayak to catch the sunset at Pulau Burung (Bird Island) where the “One Survivor” scene was shot for the Survivor: Borneo show open.
The next day Julius took me on a personal tour throughout the island where we visited filming locations:
- Just five minutes from the resort was a small clearing in the jungle, the size of a jumbo trampoline, where the original Tribal Council stood.
- Ramis Beach, once home to the Tagi Tribe is now home to large woody debris.
- Rocky Beach and Pagong-Pagong Beach look almost identical to what I saw on TV, except for the unfortunate presence of ocean trash washed on shore.
- The mud volcano still offered a sulfuric aroma and an ironically cleansing experience from its warm, filthy mud.
With every step of my tour to these locations and more, it was beyond surreal. With every step, I was walking through the episodes of the first season.
Just when I thought they had done everything to cater to my inner superfan, Julius and the Pulau Tiga Resort staff provided me with the most powerful and emotional experience of my entire trip. They organized a surprise for me at Pulau Burung (Bird Island) during sunset to recreate the shot in the show open with me holding the torch as the “One Survivor.”
After boating and kayaking along Pulau Tiga’s shoreline for roughly 30 minutes, we arrived at Pulau Burung. As I placed my hands on the surface of this comet-like rock, which is no more than 16 feet tall, I was surprised by its jagged, volcanic texture.
I cautiously climbed up using its sharp crevices as holds and after a few minutes reached the top. Located about a football field away from the mainland, I stood isolated from my surroundings gazing into the gorgeous horizon of the South China Sea.
Epic, once-in-a-lifetime, breathtaking—words cannot describe how much this meant and I don’t think they truly understood how impactful their gesture was for me. Standing on that rock, lit torch in hand, recreating such an iconic Survivor scene was one of the most empowering moments of my life.
As I stared into the sunset, memories from the past 15 years of my life flooded into my mind like the ocean flowing into Rupert’s Survivor: All-Stars shelter:
- making my family play Survivor in the forest,
- meeting my best friends in college over watching Survivor in the dorms,
- filming my first audition tape from 18- to 21-years-old before I was eligible to apply,
- a Probst outfit being my go-to Halloween costume,
- wearing buffs to bed,
- creating a team-building company inspired by Survivor,
- doing podcasts,
- reuniting friends from across the country to play Survivor games, and so much more.
As all my memories brought a grin to my face and tears to my eyes, I was able to grasp the countless reasons why I’m so passionate about Survivor.
Making Survivor dreams a reality
For 15 years of my life my Survivor dream has been focused on being a contestant and winning the title of Sole Survivor. What was put into perspective in that moment—standing on Pulau Burung—is whether or not I become a part of the Survivor family in some capacity, I’ve already won, thanks to my undying love for the show.
While watching Survivor: The Australian Outback as a 16-year-old, I told myself I was going to study abroad in Australia and visit the Outback. Sure enough, when I was 21, I made living Down Under a reality and when it came time to plan a trip to the Outback, no one wanted to go with me. I went by myself and viewed it as my own Survivor adventure. That experience of traveling solo, to a place I had dreamed about, changed my life. It instilled a fearless confidence in myself to take risks and to make an adventure out of life regardless of whomever else is, or isn’t, on board.
At 31, there I was again making my dream a reality by visiting Pulau Tiga. Over the past 10 years as I’ve been waiting for my “adventure of a lifetime” of being on Survivor, I failed to realize I haven’t been waiting at all, I’ve been living it—hiking Machu Picchu, finding the “Lost City” in the Colombian jungle, trekking through Patagonia, volunteering in Thailand, meditating at Angkor Wat Temple, discovering ancient Mayan Ruins in Guatemala, exploring glaciers in South America, bungee jumping in New Zealand, island hopping in the Philippines. The list goes on.
Thanks to that 16-year-old boy who fell in love with and was motivated by Survivor, I’ve been fortunate enough to experience our amazing world in all of its capacities.
Jeff Probst once said, “The adventure you’re ready for is the one you get.” Thank you Survivor for inspiring me to always be ready. In the past 15 years I’ve had one hell of an adventure and I can’t wait to keep living my adventure of a lifetime every day.
It may have taken 15 years and a trip to Pulau Tiga for me to realize it, but rooted in my love for a reality TV game show I’ve learned this: There’s no sense in waiting for an adventure of a lifetime. The only thing that makes sense is living it.