Being the travel head that I am, was and always will be, there are no work contracts more exciting than those that take me abroad. Friday 8 June 2007 is marked in my diary as officially being the best day of my life. No, not the arrival of a first born nor the keys to my first house and certainly not my wedding / divorce day. Rather, that is the date I got the phone call informing me that my interview for a job that would take me to the paradise islands of Fiji for three months had been successful.
As always with being a freelance TV producer, it was a whirlwind of activity in the ensuing lead-up. I started the job just days later and had two weeks in the London office before flying out.
When I arrived at Heathrow airport (on my birthday no less – surely a guaranteed upgrade lay ahead?), I gave myself a well-earned pat on the back at my organisational prowess and general fantasticness at having got everything done in such a short period of time.
This soon turned to shrieks of disbelief when I realised I’d left my purse behind and had no cash, cards or means of getting either. That, coupled with a mere, ‘Happy Birthday’ from the check-in staff when I purred that an upgrade on my special day would be lovely, saw me fly out a tad discombobulated.
On the incredibly long journey (48 hours door to door) I cheered myself up by indulging in reveries about what lay ahead. I’d never been anywhere so far away and the South Pacific had an intriguing allure. The opportunity to go there for such a long time at the expense of work beggared belief. Apart from anything else there was the wonderful weather to enjoy, where, it’s said, that ‘on average, the temperatures are always high’.
Australia was another place that had eluded me and yet I would now be working with a team made up predominantly of Aussies. I couldn’t think of anything more fun. Laid back, cheerful, outdoorsy colleagues to have the best of times with. I couldn’t wait for some precious days off to hang out with a group of likeminded adventurous types and explore the idyllic archipelago that most people only dream of visiting.
On arrival at the site I was introduced to my team including the two young Aussie guys who I’d be working most closely with. I broached the subject of the exciting things we could look into doing in our time off, specifically scuba diving and cycling expeditions inland.
‘Ah, jeez mate, I can’t actually swim. Never learned how to,’ said one.
‘Yeah and I’ve never really mastered the old bicycle,’ said the other.
These were two twenty-something Australian lads. Surely the only ones of their kind?
I cajoled them into joining me on a gentle ‘boat’ ride one day and, when one end of the wooden raft began to disintegrate and fall away, I clocked how out of their comfort zones they were when they reacted to the possible drowning situation by simply remaining quietly seated at the submerged end up to their ankles in the fast-rising water.
We had two weeks prep before we were due to broadcast live seven days a week for seven weeks and we made the most of our free time. One trip saw a large group of us hire a boat which took us to various beautiful, deserted islets. The guide also took us inland with promises of a ‘must do’ activity for which we were to set off wearing only our swim suits.
Given that, in the most part we were not friends but professional colleagues, we were all fairly horrified an hour or so into the hike to find that we were to climb up a steep, slippery hill using a narrow path that meant being face-to-arse with the person in front. We all longed to be wearing something more substantial than just bikinis but by that stage it became about not looking even more ridiculous by falling over the precipice and dying.
Our humiliation was complete when we realised the only way back down was by jumping off a truly great height into a lagoon below, avoiding the many hidden rocks. We crossed our fingers and launched ourselves off the edge.
I’m happy to report that we all survived with everything intact – apart from maybe our dignity.
The weather was glorious, the coastline and outlying islands just perfect.
And there were more than two more months of it.
Day one of our transmission was a rude awakening, not least because our shifts switched from day to night. But also because an almighty rain storm arrived and pretty much washed away our site. This out-of-season monsoon continued for the remainder of our time in Fiji – something no-one was prepared for, particularly clothes-wise.
Miserable it most certainly was, and my feet were worst hit. Not expecting to need them, I soon realised that I hadn’t packed enough socks. The majority of my downtime was spent trawling round towns in search of ladies socks only to discover that the Fijians simply didn’t go in for them. Not a single sock anywhere on the island.
Another issue was laundry. Water ran brown from every tap – even in the Five Star resort we were staying in. Any light coloured article handed in was returned a light dirt hue. Anything vaguely dark was promoted to black as night. Without exception, my entire wardrobe had to be replaced at the end of the trip.
It rained solidly for two months, and all the while news reached us of a summer so hot back in the UK that the roads were melting.
Long night shifts spent in a portacabin working relentlessly to put out a daily live show was not the average experience of a visitor to a fantasy island in the South Pacific. The environment meant it was challenging to maintain usual standards, even when it came to a task as straight forward as printing scripts. The unbearable humidity played havoc with curls – and I’m not talking hair. It was an ongoing race to press print and then run into the next room to reach the scripts that were spluttering out before the paper curled up into a ringlet and became unusable.
Invertebrates unfamiliar both in form and size hounded we somewhat sheltered Brits – much to the amusement of the far more accustomed Aussies especially when, during a live broadcast, something monstrously huge crawled across the front desk scaring the bejaysus out of the vision mixer who reacted by pressing all possible camera options in quick succession. On a subsequent show his reaction to the appearance of a giant spider was to suppress its entrance onto his desk by firmly blocking the gap – rendering him incapable of switching between any shots at all and resulting in an unfeasibly lengthy hold on a camera showing nothing whatsoever happening.
My ultimate undoing was on the day of the biggest storm we’d seen, which was nothing short of biblical.
The reality house where our celebrities were hold up with cameras trained on their every move had been designed with a rather lovely outdoor kitchen. As with any reality show, interaction with the outside world – including production staff and crew – is minimal and certainly not shown on TV.
The typhoon, tsunami or whatever it was took us all by surprise this day. An eleventh hour decision was taken to reposition our live broadcast from its outdoor location to an indoor set. The celebrity residents were to be kept inside for the duration of the show.
Such was the intensity of the wind and rain that it was almost impossible to see your hand in front of your face. And yet, in these conditions, a point came live on air when I needed to urgently get from the transmission control room over to the presenter area to produce a hastily amended item from the floor.
Out I went into the elements and battled my way down to the hitherto unused set, unsure of the path to take and unable to see anything. I soon became lost and tried to radio for directions, but no-one could hear me. I walked round and round, bumping into some things, stubbing my toes on other things, coconuts fell from high up in the trees above me dangerously close to my head and the angry ocean crashed against the rocks just beside me.
I saw no-one and no-one saw me.
No-one, that is, apart from the millions of viewers who were briefly treated to shots of my agony as it transpired I had unwittingly stumbled into the grounds of the reality house. Rigged cameras picked up this wailing banshee representation of myself as I blindly thrashed around the alfresco kitchen, knocking into all the surfaces and appliances and swearing loudly each time I came into contact with anything sharp. The concept of the reality show was shattered as I unknowingly drew the attention of the celebrities who congregated at the windows and watched in bemusement as I struggled to stay on my feet and avoid falling coconuts.
This would be a totally out of bounds thing to do on a reality show at the best of times, but to do so when live on air is career suicide. Luckily it occurred at a time when the vision mixer wasn’t being toyed with by wild beasts and he was able to cut away from me as soon as it was clear that I was an interloper.
Dressed, as I was, in head-to-toe rain gear, I managed to remain anonymous and later was even able to join in conversations about, ‘Who WAS that?’
The moral of this story almost certainly has to be ‘Be Careful What You Wish For,’ in my case this was definitely a paradise lost.