Don't get me wrong. "Survivor" is fascinating television. I love watching the growing tension between Jerri and Keith; agonizing over whether Kel really tucked into a private stash of beef jerky; pondering whether Elizabeth has the power to protect Roger; wondering how many pounds of water I could balance on my shoulders. Still, as an Australian and a pedant, I am heartily disappointed with the "reality" of the setting. What Jeff and his producers call the Outback is a lush, watery place in the rainy season, not the dry, red desert we associate with the word. And survive? The good people of Ogakor and Kucha are getting a whole lot of help. They may be on the peckish side, but as long as they're complaining about mushy rice you know they haven't got it too bad.
Herewith, some tips you won't learn from TV:
Don't Ask for the Outback
As the survivors land on a suspiciously convenient runway, Jeff tells them that "as of right now, you are completely cut off from the outside world." Actually, they're on a 55,000-acre cattle station only a hundred miles or so west of the Queensland coast, over what's known as the Great Dividing Range. Travel another thousand miles or so further west and you'll be in the true center of Australia.
The Outback isn't a specifically defined area, but when Australians refer to it they're talking about country wildly different from the real estate that Ogakor and Kucha call home. Those fortunate tribes have the flowing Herbert River to drink from, wash and cool off in. In the true Outback, water is often found only by digging a hole at the bottom of a rocky outcrop. It can get up to 120 degrees during the day and there is precious little shade. There's no ankle-deep water for a bikini-clad Jerri to lounge in and proclaim "Look at us. Just hanging out like we're on vacation." Indeed.
Don't Let Anyone Tell You Cow Brain Is Bush Tucker
As an Australian, I'm happy to forgive Jeff for calling the cattle ranch the Outback. After shoving Mick Dundee and the Crocodile Hunter down your throats, we deserve it. But I really can't find it in my heart to excuse CBS for Episode 2's immunity challenge, in which the contestants must eat "true Aboriginal food, what they call bush tucker." The mangrove worm, the wichity grub, the bug and the shellfish are all fair enough, says Ian Lilley, of the University of Queensland's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Unit. But cow brain and the lining of a cow's stomach? Kids, there were no cows before the white man came along. This stuff makes great television, no doubt about it. But it's not true Aboriginal food. Maybe Tina, who couldn't stomach the stomach, should talk to Stacey about a legal challenge.
Or Tina could try some real bush tucker. Tiny black stingless bees, often called sweat bees, would lead her to the fix. "If you sit in the shade they'll land on you, and you just follow them home," Lilley says. "They'll usually be in a hollow tree, and what Aboriginal people did was cut or dip into the nest, using a cloth made from plant material, stick it in the honey to soak it up and then squeeze it into your mouth." Beats cow brains.
Don't Be Afraid of the Praying Mantis
The biggest "Survivor" laugh so far came in the promotions, where CBS treated us to the obligatory shots of snakes, kangaroos, crocodiles, and... a praying mantis? Not exactly the scariest thing you'll face as a survivor. Then again, "Survivor"'s on-site physician, Adrian Cohen, told People magazine that participants were also up against five species of deadly snakes, "all of them... incredibly mean." Which is an overstatement, says Lilley. The snakes, particularly the brown snake and the taipan, can be vicious (and three crew members were bitten during production) but mostly the problems come in the summer. The series was filmed in the rainy season, making for sleepy, sluggish reptiles who would almost certainly slink away as soon as they sensed the vibrations of footsteps. And those nasty, man-eating crocodiles we keep seeing during the opening credits? Safely on the downstream side of the 400-foot Herbert River Falls.
The biggest threat to the tribes so far is the very animal that the war-painted Mike is so intent on spearing, a feral pig. Another introduced animal, these fierce pigs have been known to attack without provocation and can severely gore and bite humans.
"You can shoot a feral pig three times in the head and it will still come for you," says Glen Macris, a Sydney-based marketing consultant who has some knowledge of these things. That's shoot, Mike, as in with a gun. And last we checked, all you have is a knife on a stick.
Help! No One Left Me a Big Crate of Supplies
Without matches, a flag almost the size of Texas, tarpaulin, twine and a knife, what does one do for shelter and fire in the Australian bush? In Queensland, where the nights are reasonably warm, Lilley says Aboriginal people traditionally used a low, semi-circular windbreak of shrubs or tree boughs "with an open fire and your dog or dogs if it was cool or cold at night. A three-dog night is really cold." One piece of advice the Kuchas haven't heeded: Don't construct your shelter under eucalyptus trees, because they can drop big branches without warning. Then again, that's one way of removing someone from the tribe.
The trick with fire, Lilley says, is to use a hard piece of wood to rub between the hands, and a softer piece on the ground. "We used to do it in school," he says. "We would take wooden rulers and rub them really hard on the desk. If you did it hard enough, you'd actually burn the desk." Speaking of fire, the bush fire rumored to be heading for "Survivor" territory could be a good thing. "When the grass starts to grow afresh after burning off, all the animals will come to feed on it, whereupon you beat them over the head with something," says Lilley. Start putting on that war paint, Mike.