Tara Ward gets an exclusive invite into the Treasure Island: Fans v Faves challenge arena, and finds out this castaway lark isn’t as easy as it looks.
Joe Cotton is standing on top of a ladder in Fiji, extremely stressed out. “Just give me the fucking thing!” she screams at her teammates, moments after a puzzle piece fell to the ground at the worst possible time. The TrueBliss singer’s team of reality TV veterans is about to lose the first physical challenge of Treasure Island: Fans v Faves to a bunch of unknowns, and tension couldn’t be higher. The celebrities are back for redemption, the superfans are determined to impress, and all that stands between their hopes and dreams coming true is a flying block of wood with half a palm tree painted on it.
This season, Treasure Island: Fans v Faves returned to its televisual homeland of Fiji, where eight Celebrity Treasure Island favourites competed against eight superfans of the game to raise $50,000 for their chosen charity. After five unpredictable weeks of strategy, scandal and fake stomach bugs, the season finale screens on Wednesday night, but nothing represents Treasure Island’s hectic nature more than the show’s iconic physical challenges. In the great tradition of inviting visiting media to go behind the scenes of Treasure Island, the opportunity to watch one of these game-changing challenges play out in real time was more exciting than Dame Susan Devoy becoming a TikTok sensation.
The challenge arena lies at the end of a long dirt track that winds alongside the Pacific ocean, past signs alerting visitors to both falling coconuts and the location of first aid kits. A small clearing has been transformed into an adventure playground for adults, created over several days by a crew of 70 New Zealanders and Fijians. They have a busy two weeks ahead of them, with five shipping containers of equipment sent over to Fiji. Creating this sturdy, detailed set of platforms and bridges seems like a lot of effort for a game that will only get 10 minutes of screentime, but executive producer Craig “Burto” Burton reassures us that the set will be taken apart and used in other challenges.
It took two weeks for the crew to build this season’s accommodation, with the castaways sleeping on hessian bunks under a canvas roof that Burto says is designed to keep out the elements. They’re given the bare necessities to survive, including sunscreen and bug spray (“a nightmare to keep out of shot,” Burto reckons), plus treasure chests filled with sleeping bags, cooking utensils and drink bottles. On a shelf sits binoculars and wine goblets, as well as a laminated piece of A4 paper listing the rules of the game. “All clues to the treasure are considered personal property and can not be stolen,” it reads, an ominous precursor to Dame Susan’s “WHO STOLE MY ROCK?!” moment.
The team face-off is the second of three challenges filmed that day, and like most Treasure Island challenges, is designed to test both brain and brawn. We get a chance to experience it for ourselves when media are invited to be the nameless, faceless bodies that demonstrate how the game works for viewers at home. It’s hot and humid as we stand up on the high platform, and as I struggle to yank up the heavy bridge and awkwardly push the blocks into place, I realise I would be the first player voted off the island. This Treasure Island lark is not as easy as it looks.
It’s late afternoon by the time the crew is ready to start filming. Camera operators climb onto the back of utes and a drone buzzes over the set for aerial shots, and hosts Bree Tomasel and Jayden Daniels stand beside a table covered by a red cloth. One crew member adjusts the height of Tomasel’s socks while another uses a leaf blower to smooth the sand around them, and Tomasel practices whipping off the cloth to reveal the challenge prize of eggs and coffee. The crew marvel over a rope handle that’s been sewn onto the cloth to make these reveals easier. “It only took us three seasons,” someone jokes.
When the teams arrive, they’re told not to look at the challenge, but to walk past and into a small clearing from where they’ll make their “proper” entrance on camera. “You won’t be wearing those sunglasses when you walk in, eh,” Burto tells 2021 CTI runner-up Lance Savali, before instructing the teams on how to enter: short people at the front, tall at the back. Tomasel and Daniels explain the challenge, but the director isn’t happy with the players’ reaction to the food reward. They film the reveal again, and this time, everyone gasps and claps like they’ve never seen an egg before. There’s a final chance to discuss the rules off-camera with a challenge coordinator, and production runners hand out plastic cups filled with a clear electrolyte drink.
The Faves end their pre-game huddle with a loud chant of “we’ve done it before”. The director asks them to repeat the moment on camera, because the Faves having done this before is an undeniable advantage. “I distinctly remember people being more uptight about it before, probably because none of us knew what we were doing,” Lana Searle says of her first season. Savali agrees his team has the benefit of knowing what they did right last time, and now the vibe is more “let’s just see what happens”. Josh Kronfeld has already won this show twice, and their combined experience means the Faves walk in confident and relaxed. They’ve already proven themselves. They know exactly how this game works.
But for the Fans, this is both their first physical challenge and their first day filming a TV show. While former C4 presenter Jane Yee and ex-Survivor NZ contestant Adam O’Brien have industry experience, their teammates are understandably overawed by the intensity of a working TV production. “It’s actually quite humbling to see like hundreds of people floating around, working on heaps of different stuff that I never realised existed watching this show,” artist Katie Middleton says. “I had no idea how many humans actually make it happen.” And although Josh Oakley’s mum Devoy prepped him about the show, he’s still surprised by the reality of reality TV. “She’s been telling me how it works, but even just being here a day, it’s like she’s missed most of it,” he says.
“Tīmata!” Daniels shouts, and the challenge begins. The Faves are fast and focused, the Fans slow and steady, but this isn’t just about solving a puzzle. These castaways are also here to make good television, and Green and Savali are in a show of their own. They hold up the drawbridge as Green lunges theatrically and jokes with Tomasel, and chaos agent Savali winks and smiles down the camera. It’s the first sign of a power couple who – as we go into the show’s final week – seem an unbeatable pairing of strength and strategy. Savali initially hoped to keep his alliance with Green a secret, whispering his game plan into my voice recorder so the nearby Faves couldn’t hear. “That’s my guy. Like, we’re good friends, but we’re gonna have to pretend like we are not really close. So he’ll be my dude until we go against each other, I guess.”
What viewers at home don’t see is the fourth wall breaking throughout the challenge, with producers shouting instructions up to Daniels and Kronfeld clarifying one of the rules. Earlier that day, Kronfeld’s sore ankles had him hobbling back to camp, but the heat of the competition sees him bound up and down the ladder like a gazelle. There’s some smack talk between the alpha males on each team (something about a toothpick) and the crew keep asking Savali to stop holding the rope around his waist (Savali ignores them). It takes precious minutes for the celebrities to notice they’ve built their puzzle wrong. The Faves bicker over their mistake, the Fans get a whiff of victory, and suddenly the mood in the arena shifts.
The tension is palpable, even without the atmospheric music and slick editing you get on television. Treasure Island might just be a silly game, but at this moment every one of these 16 people wants to win it. It’s a frenzy of noise and activity, with Tomasel’s sassy off-the-cuff commentary in full flight and Daniels shouting from above. It’s neck-and-neck, until the moment that last piece of the Faves’ puzzle topples to the ground. Cotton screams, but it’s too late. After 15 minutes of fast-paced, intense gameplay, the Fans push their puzzle together and Daniels announces them the winners. The Fans raise their hands in the air, triumphant. “Shit,” says Faves captain Matty McLean.
It’s the win the Fans needed to prove they deserve to be here. ”Once we know who we’re playing, once the reality of it has sunk in and once we’ve won our first challenge, that’s going to be a game changer for us,” Dave “Wardie” Ward predicted the day before. The Faves are no longer confident nor relaxed, while the Fans seem like they could explode with pride. “It looked tense up there, didn’t it?” a jovial Devoy says to us. There’s a quick debrief with Tomasel and Daniels, where McLean jokes about the Faves needing to sort out their tops and bottoms, before the players are sent away to their pretend exit. It’s growing dark, but there’s still one more challenge to film that day. Given everything that just happened, it’s game on.
Treasure Island: Fans v Faves screens Monday to Wednesday at 7.30pm on TVNZ2 and streams on TVNZ+.