Television: Capturing the Survey Castle – Chronicling Jono and Ben’s Lake Taupo Crusade

At the height of survey season, Jono and Ben made an attempt to cross Lake Taupo in an inflatable castle. Don Rowe watches from the sky. 

Some time around the year 180 AD an explosion in the Pacific turned the sky over eastern China red. The violent upheaval threw over a thousand cubic kilometres of earth into the air, covering much of New Zealand’s North Island in a 200m deep layer of ignimbrite and spreading a thick ash blanket as far as the Chatham Islands. Nearly 2,000 years later, a couple of radio jocks floated across the crater in a bouncy castle. This is the story of that journey.

In some places, Lake Taupo is over 150 metres deep. That’s more than enough to swallow a plane, a bouncy castle and any of the idiots on board either craft. I considered this as we bounced across the lake’s windswept surface in a converted Cessna floatplane, the air sucking and clawing at the void where the right door should have been. “There’s a bit more drag without the door, eh Tonya?” said the pilot Neil, opening the throttle and leaning forward to see over the nose of the plane.

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We were headed in search of the Wascally Waft, a Bugs Bunny bouncy castle fixed with a small Yamaha outboard motor and crewed by Rock FM jocks and Jono and Ben hosts Jono Pryor and Ben Boyce. The Waft had been afloat since predawn on a long-awaited, much delayed 40km ‘castle crusade’ from the southern tip of the lake to a red carpet landing just near the Hole in One Challenge in Taupo Bay.

Contrary to the sheltered waters of the launching point at the Lakehouse in Waihi Bay, conditions outside the cove were considerably more difficult. By 11am, the tiller extension arm had snapped, there were rumors on shore of a smoking generator, and Pryor’s stomach contents were feeding the lake’s famed supply of brown and rainbow trout. It made for perfect entertainment; dicey, but without too much chance of an actual drowning. Adversity is important of course, because nothing pisses kiwis off more than someone succeeding without any difficulty at all.

But why face the terrors of the deep aboard such a vessel? Why brave freezing conditions, turbulent waters and the scorn of the analysts in the TV3 comments section (“two of nzs biggest dickheads doing something that was stupid before they even set sail” and “I hope their hooks puncture the floating bouncy castle , and the sinkers pull them under LOL”)?

Well, because it’s survey season, and as Pryor told Newsworthy – “We are soulless, shameless radio and TV presenters. We did this for publicity.”

Survey is the six week process whereby radio stations attract heightened public attention through stunts and marketing, capture the extra ears it generates in a survey and then refine it down into a tidy statistic which can be exchanged for the lifeblood of entertainment media: advertising revenue. It’s a time of corporate-funded madness. A time where, with the right hype, two guys in a bouncy castle can climb atop a heap of virtual corpses and be the number one trending topic on Twitter for most of the day.

From the sky, Lake Taupo’s 600 square kilometre surface is immense and unrelenting. We tacked southwest in the small high-wing, hugging the shoreline. Our cargo included a photographer, a bucket of KFC, two Pepsis and myself. “During landing you’re connecting with the surface at around 100kmh” said Neil over a crackling intercom. “The water’s getting pretty hard at that speed.” I wondered what speed a body falling from several hundred feet would hit at, but before I could ask we spotted a flotilla of several boats surrounding a small yellow speck far below and began our descent.

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After skipping across the surface, the plane drifted alongside the Waft, clipped a mounted GoPro with the wing and all but dislodged it. The Waft was secured by a rope and the KFC drop went ahead, Cocaine Cowboys style, the pilot balancing on the float and handing over first the chicken then the drinks. Pryor, identified as captain by his gold-trimmed captain’s hat, received the goods and proceeded to pour scalding potato-and-gravy slush into his mouth and down his chin. “Ahh, it’s so good, but so hot,” he screamed to the sky.

But this wasn’t only the world’s most expensive KFC delivery. A cameraman from their primetime television show climbed aboard, perching himself nervously in the seat near the missing door and the plane took flight once more, struggling slightly with the added weight. A few broad circles and a passenger exchange later, and we were back on shore awaiting the arrival of the Waft. I sat in my car reading The Count of Monte Cristo for a while, ate a KFC snack burger and then made my way to the landing zone as the flotilla came into view.

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The most exciting thing to happen in Taupo for the last 2000 years, around 500 faithful Rock listeners had gathered on the shore, lining the red carpet and perching on Rock FM beanbags beneath Rock FM banners. Rock Roadies milled about like heavy metal oompa loompas, cooking sausages, serving V’s and generally looking like bogans. The Rock FM blared from several black utes, and in the carpark a guy showed off his freshly-bagged Holden. On the lake, a guard of honor formed. Surrounding the Waft was a sailboat, a cruise ship, the Huka falls jet, a few jetskis, a tugboat and, in the sky, a sinister drone strapped with a GoPro and malevolent red lights. It was kind of absurd.

As the Waft came into shore, celebrations reached a new level of intensity. Whipped into a froth by the urgings of the Roadies, the crowd bayed for the arrival of their modern day Captain’s Cook. They were also pretty keen to hurl waterbombs filled with champagne, which they did with no concern for friendly fire or collateral damage. To the cheers of the crowd, Jono and Ben ascended the bank on a red carpet, greeted with the key to the city and a live radio cross.

I had seen enough, and made my exit. Heading back to the car, a German tourist stopped me in the street.

“Vwat has happens here?” he asked.

I really struggled to find an answer.


Jono and Ben returns tonight to TV3 at 7.30pm

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