Published: September 17, 2008
Jeff Probst: The Survivalist
Filming Survivor in Gabon brought charging elephants, leopards in the catering tent, and the potential for new tourism to the central African nation.
Text by Andrew Burmon

A cloud of malarial mosquitoes is never kind. Jeff Probst knows this, having spent the better part of three months inside one in Gabon to film the 17th season of Survivor. So before he takes the stage at the Nokia Theater in Los Angeles to emcee the 2008 Emmy Awards this Sunday (September 21), Probst may spend a little extra time in the makeup room. Don’t blame him. Blame the Wonga-Wongue.

Probst has been living in the remote Wonga-Wongue Presidential Reserve, a tract of rain forest on the coast of the central African nation of Gabon. The park, which was established through the efforts of National Geographic's Explorer-in-Residence Mike Fay, attracted an advance team for Mark Burnett, the reality television hegemon. Untouched beaches, roaming gorillas, impenetrable jungle—if they could just get Probst and the cameras in place, the season was bound to be a success. But reality has a way of impeding Hollywood's best laid plans. The very inaccessibility that makes Wonga-Wongue a perfect place for a reserve also makes it the most difficult conceivable setting for a television show. After accidents, mishaps, and few close calls, it fell to Probst to get the production back on its feet. No easy task in knee-deep mud.

This Thursday, when Survivor: Gabon: Earth’s Last Eden finally debuts on CBS, audiences across America will probably be too caught up in another season of treachery and action to give a second thought to all that went into the show's production. That's just fine by Probst. It is supposed to look easy. ADVENTURE spoke with Probst about the 17th season while he was stationed in Libreville, Gabon.

ADVENTURE: What are your impressions of Gabon so far?

Jeff Probst: I never knew Africa looked like this. I was raised with the image of acacia trees and hot days. We’ve done a season in Kenya, so that was my impression. But here we have these wide-open green savannas, thick jungle, and we're sitting right on the coast. In retrospect, Kenya feels like going to the zoo. The animals here aren't acclimatized to Range Rovers, so when you come across a family of elephants, it's a big damn deal. Some of the people have seen the surfing hippos, but I haven't yet.

A: How has it been dealing with the Gabonese government?

JP: The government here has been as good to us. Gabon is just beginning to embrace tourism, and they see Survivor as a great platform to get the word out. They actually went so far as to give us their military engineers. No one had ever done that. They built 100 kilometers [62 miles] of road and 11 bridges. We showed them what we wanted [to film] and then we worked so that we would all benefit from this building. After we leave, these roads will give tourists access.

A: The president of Gabon is a vocal supporter of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe. Do you have any misgivings about providing positive press for a country that supports a less than savory regime?

JP: Mark [Burnett] and I and the other executive producers spoke early on about going to countries where we don't agree with the politics. We decided we were going for one single purpose: to make the show. My own personal views are probably more in line with rational people, and at times it is a bit of a quandary. We dealt with it in China, where the interpreters wouldn't talk about Tiananmen Square. It is always a strange situation.

A: Wonga-Wongue has obviously never played host to a similar production. Aside from a lack of roads, what sorts of difficulties did your crew face?

JP: We had a cargo ship pull up to base, and we were offloading a container of about $100,000 worth of food. It was 20 feet from our camp. The crane was at camp and the operator tried to move the food. When he did, the crane tipped over. The food, the crane, and even the crane operator went into the water. It was a big hit to the production budget, but it was a season of preproduction mishaps.

There was also the issue of the set. We based our tribal council on local villages, so we were building these adobe thatch-roofed huts. We hired pygmies to build the thatched roofs and ship them to us. But when they tried to get the roofs on the train, they got dumped because the space was needed for a dead guy. Then, the next time, they got dumped for a container of the president's food. After that, the pygmies went on strike. When the roofs were finally shipped the train workers wouldn't offload them for a week. We even tried to bribe them but they said, "No, it doesn't work that way."

A: What sort of wildlife were you dealing with around the set? Do you have concerns about the survivors being near hippos, gorillas, and other highly territorial animals?

JP: Well, there is some leopard that really likes the smell of what we've been eating. We've had leopard prints in our catering tent. We see animals but I wouldn't say we have had any dangerous encounters. But two weeks ago, a 12-foot python slithered into camp. It didn't take long for the rangers to control it. Then I—never waste an opportunity—shot a promo with it. The money shot for us is to have the survivors and wildlife in the same shot. We actually got that with some elephants, which was very exciting.

A: What has been your most memorable experience in Gabon?

JP: Coming home to oamp after 17 days without seeing animals. I was alone in the car on one of the new roads when I saw a family of elephants. Reflexively, I turned the ignition off. They didn't seem to care that I was there. They just got closer and closer. Then one of them gave what the ranger told me was a warning charge, as if to say, You've looked long enough, it's time for you to go. It was amazing. Elephants in zoos are old, but these animals were young and pure—their skin was just glistening.

A: What do you think will set Survivor's 17th season apart from the others

JP: The big new thing is high def. We'll do our normal twists, but high def is the big one. We're going for a National Geographic sort of feel. The other day we showed some Gabonese Government Officials our footage. They were nearly brought to tears by how beautiful the footage was of their country. It was a great bonding moment between two groups of very different people.