In June 1997, a new reality TV juggernaut arrived on New Zealand screens. Tara Ward and Alex Casey look back on a quarter-century of Treasure Island mayhem.
Twenty-six years ago this month, we watched 12 fresh-faced New Zealanders arrive on a Fijian beach with nothing but their hopes and dreams and some really long cargo shorts. Nobody watching the premiere of an exciting new reality show called Treasure Island could have ever predicted that this gnarly homespun reality series would be the ultimate survivor, going on to become one of New Zealand’s most enduring and beloved reality franchises.
Over the past two decades, Treasure Island has shifted and evolved into a variety of weird and wonderful formats, but it never stopped giving us great TV. Let’s open the monolith of memories and look back on some of Treasure Island’s most mindblowing moments.
Levi Bowen finds the first ever treasure (1997)
The inaugural season of Treasure Island was a bold social experiment which saw a group of everyday New Zealanders put through an intense selection process (can you hold a champagne flute of Coke while treading water?!) and then chucked on a remote Fijian beach for three weeks. In the season’s fifth and final episode, the two remaining contestants – kitchen fitter Levi Bowen and TV presenter Pieta Keating – roamed the island in a rather dull (by today’s standards) search for the buried treasure. Levi dug up the $25,000 first, Pieta went on to host the next series, and the rest, as they say, is history. / Tara Ward
Horse chokes on crayfish (2005)
For this challenge, host Jon Stevens warned the cast of Superstars of Treasure Island (an intense season featuring players from Ireland, Australia and New Zealand) that competitors would need a strong stomach. Captain Louise Wallace, dressed head to toe in mid-2000s surf brands, chooses facepaint-wearing military hardman Horse (“because he’s got the stomach of an ox and the body of a horse”) to go up against itty-bitty shorts-wearer Michael Laws (“because I suspect he has the stomach of a baby”).
The eating challenge is revealed to be a succulent crayfish meal, and Horsey and Lawsy both start urgently sucking back the seafood. Suddenly, Horse went quiet and began to jerk. The crowd laughed nervously. It was only when he did a weird silent puke like a baby that Wallace realised what was going on. “Fuck, he’s got something stuck in his throat,” she bellowed, as a paramedic quickly swooped in to push Josh Kronfeld aside and perform the Heimlich manoeuvre.
After a few guttural gasps of the worst sound ever captured, a nonchalant Horse returned to his meal. “Carry on”, he shrugged. And to think: this isn’t the only celebrity-spewing-up-crayfish entry on this list! / Alex Casey
Mike King behaving badly (2022)
Intruder Mike King swept onto the Celebrity Treasure Island beach like a human tornado, leaving massive destruction in his wake. As self-appointed president of the Mike King Women’s Alliance, the comedian heckled the hosts, insulted his fellow players and destroyed alliances, before abruptly and tearfully withdrawing from the game. A truly bizarre series of events. / TW
Players sent home by chunky laptop (1997)
In the late 1990s, nothing said “technological progress” better than a computer on a beach. The first season of Treasure Island eliminated players by making them answer a tricky multi-choice computer quiz (but what is the capital of Fiji?) and one by one, the lowest scoring players were sent home. Their dreams of winning $25,000 were shattered not by a sad-faced Matt Chisholm, but this iconic chunky laptop. Yellow screen of doom, floppy disk of nightmares. / TW
Jane Yee departs on a gust of wind (2023)
We would be remiss not to mention that utter sabotage by one “Mother Nature” on our own Jane Yee. The Real Pod host had a triumphant run in this year’s season of Fans vs Faves, striking up early alliances with key players, assembling barbecues with ease and giving emotional pep talks with aplomb. But it was during the elimination battle against Alex King that a pesky gust of wind blew over her tower of sea animals at the last possible second and sent her back home. Outrage! Unfair! Rigged? We have approached Ms Nature for comment multiple times but are yet to hear back from her reps. / AC
Boardshorts? We’ll show you boardshorts (2004)
Viva la three-quarter length boardies and all hail the Dirty Dogs sunnies of Celebrity Treasure Island season three. Also, I could watch this important historical record of Simon Barnett saying “it smells disgusting, it looks disgusting” until the end of time. / TW
Eliminated contestant goes rogue (2002)
In what remains the most batshit season of Treasure Island ever, 16 police, armed forces and SAS officers were tasked with living on an island without fresh water or food for 2002’s Treasure Island: Extreme. The survival experts were pushed to their limits, collapsing in the sea and swimming to random yachts to beg for supplies, but things went next level when SAS officer (and team villain) Baz was eliminated, but refused to leave the island. Baz took off into the bush for two nights, leading the show’s producer to warn the remaining contestants about their safety. “I want to make this clear, it’s not a TV stunt, this is for real,” the producer told them. “He’s on the loose.” / TW
Hayley Holt shows no mercy (2007)
Never forget that Treasure Island did a Pirates of the Pacific (?) season hosted by Matthew Ridge (?) who seemed to fire a gun on the show waaaay too often (?). In this Captain’s Challenge, then-Dancing With the Stars dancer Hayley Holt went up against rugby league player Monty Betham in a game of “pick up rocks and spell a word”. What’s dazzling here is not the intricacies of the challenge itself – although Ridgey does take 10 years to explain it – but Holt’s delectable win. “She’ll be out to prove a point,” said Betham. “And we all know what girls are like when they put their minds to it.” No better comeuppance than Holt quickly leaving Betham in the dust by spelling out SHOW NO MERCY, and then going on to win the whole bloody thing! Was this the first act of feminism on New Zealand TV? All signs point to yes. / AC
Matty McLean doesn’t have to prove himself to Barbara Kendall (2019)
Lana Coc-Kroft nearly dies (2004)
In 2004, television personality Lana Coc-Kroft developed a near-fatal infection while on the island in Fiji, ending up in a coma for nine days. Reading back some of the reporting from the time is genuinely terrifying. “We still have no idea what is wrong with her. It is life-threatening. All these sorts of tropical illnesses are life-threatening,” her agent told the NZ Herald. “The uncertainty is the worst thing.” Thankfully, Coc-Kroft made a full recovery in the following months and told NZ On Screen she hoped future TV productions would learn from the chapter. “It probably wasn’t handled well at the time,” she said. “Sometimes it takes something to go wrong with someone in order to right the future.” / AC
Jodie Rimmer pretends to puke (2019)
In order to avoid being put up for elimination by then-weatherman Sam Wallace, Jodie Rimmer forecast some thunderous puke noises with heavy showers of regurgitated melon. “I really don’t want to go home tonight,” she told audiences in the 2019 reboot of CTI, “so I’m gonna do a fake vomit.” If it is to be said, so it be, so it is. Rimmer performed the greatest and most disgusting faux chunder ever committed to the silver screen, and bought herself a little more time in the game to parade around wearing a rubber duck mask. / AC
Josh Kronfeld keeps coming back (2004, 2005, 2023)
Is Josh Kronfeld our greatest Treasure Island legend? Experts say: yes. After winning CTI in 2004, the former All Black went on to win Treasure Island: Superstars the following year, and at the age of 51, returned to compete in last year’s Fans v Faves season. An incredible competitor, even if my most enduring memory of Kronfeld is the time his teammates sailed his dirty undies out to sea. / TW
Joe Cotton dresses as Harley Quinn (2023)
There is much to be said about the evolving state of fashion on Treasure Island over the last quarter century, but perhaps no look feels as anchored in space and time as Joe Cotton dressed as cackling DC supervillain Harley Quinn. “If anything, it was a distraction tactic because I know that my physical prowess is not the greatest,” she explained earlier this year. “So I thought maybe I could distract people with my crazy face and then win something.” / AC
Chris Parker’s underdog victory (2021)
First of all, there was the way that Chris Parker won CTI 2021. For most of the final he was miles and miles and miles behind his fellow competitors Lance Savali and Edna Swart, getting lost in the bush with a cut lip and praying to Mariah Carey. “The one thing I am good at is perseverance,” he told himself and the country, as he dug deep and eventually caught up with them at the site of the buried treasure.
Then, bringing a tear to the eye of gardeners around the country, Parker had a flora-based discovery. The area they were digging in didn’t make sense because the type of grass – one that Parker had wrestled with at his old flat – was far too dense to ever have treasure buried underneath it. He picked a new spot, we heard the “doof” of shovel hitting wood, and he collapsed in tears as his fellow competitors helped him dig up $100,000 for Rainbow Youth.
Not only was it the perfect ending, but this triumphant season of CTI was a particularly important escape for the largest city in the country, which was nearing three months in lockdown when this finale aired. Parker gave us a glimmer of hope, a gut howl of humanity, a bloody good underdog story, and you should take every opportunity you can to relive the moment in this excellent and emotional episode of The Real Pod featuring Chris Parker himself. / AC
Rebecca Loos, pirate of the Pacific (2007)
In one of the franchise’s most surprising celebrity appearances, British media personality Rebecca Loos washed up on Treasure Island: Pirates of the Pacific. Along with Australian rugby bad-boy Wendell Sailor, Loos brought an international flavour to a cast that included Michael Murphy and April Ieremia. Loos was fourth to leave the game, and shortly afterwards she and show host Matthew Ridge made headlines for “steaming up” an airline cabin. Someone turn the air con on, stat! / TW
The Wiz wears a big hat (2019)
Just a stonker brim from the befuddled league legend, who stumbled his way to the finale despite not being able to see more than five centimetres in front of him the entire time. / AC
Couples at War (2006)
In the words of CTI megafan Winston Churchill, celebrities shall fight on the beaches. In 2006, eight celebrity couples – including JJ Feeney and Dom Harvey, The Edge’s met-at-the-altar-for the-first-time couple Zane Nicholl and Paula Stockwell, and equine power couple Lance and Bridgette O’Sullivan – fought over goats and disgusting milkshakes. There is no internet footage of this season, possibly for good reason. Let us never speak of it again. / TW
Dame Susan Devoy being Dame Susan Devoy (2022, 2023)
Every now and then, a CTI contestant comes along and swiftly washes away whatever public image they previously held with the force of a powerful crayfish chunder. That was Dame Susan Devoy on both CTI in 2022 and Fans v Faves in 2023. The former human rights commissioner was mostly known for 1) squash and 2) Centrum, but quickly revealed herself to be one of the loosest units in Treasure Island history. / AC
Clarke Gayford comes third (1999)
Back in ye olde 1999, Clarke Gayford tried his luck on the second season of Treasure Island and joined 16 other civilian players in Tonga to search for $25,000. Gayford made it all the way to the final episode before being eliminated. Long before he was our First Man, he came third, man. / TW
Recent seasons of Celebrity Treasure Island are available to stream on TVNZ+.