Hyenas ripped my flesh!

"Survivor" is back, with Jeff Probst and suspense and very dirty water. Plus: The great cherry caper.

Published October 12, 2001 6:56AM (EDT)

We're at a party, with several dozen chattering guests. It's really nerve-wracking, in a weird way. Everyone's friendly, but sort of too friendly.

And they're all the type that you just don't want to stand too close to.

There's a tubby guy named Richard who's always complaining about something. There was a cute guy named Dirk, who was oddly vague, and a cute girl with over-glossed lips, named Colleen, who seemed about an inch deep.

There's a crotchety guy named Rudy yammering on about kids these days and about how dropping his hand off that pole cost him a million dollars. There's a woman named Jerri who obviously thought she was some kind of a babe, but seemed bitchy. There was a guy named Jeff who was just arch and kind of a jerk, and lots of other people whose names and, truth be told, personalities we were hard-pressed to focus on.

"Don't you remember? It's me, Sonja!" one woman kept saying.

We finally woke up. It was only a dream.

It was that lonely hour, just before dawn.

We had a sudden, searching revelation, and we quickly grabbed for the notepad we keep next to the bed, specifically to write down the lessons we glean from our dreams.

"Get lives," we wrote.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

"Survivor" is back, this time in Africa. Seeing Jeff Probst, delivering his lines while propping himself up in a ricocheting truck roaring across the Kenyan desert, gave us a strong feelingly of comfort and familiarity, like finding an old Reese's peanut butter cup, linty but still edible, in a vest pocket.

He tells the group they are in eastern Kenya, near the equator. He says it's hot, arid and dangerous.

There are lots of cutaways to the various flora and fauna, most of the latter of which looks hungry.

The group is in a nature preserve, so we figure the blood-hunting we saw last season won't be allowed.

And we suspect in any case a lion will be less agreeable about the whole process than the baby pig old Mike brought down in Australia last winter.

We've been looking forward to "Survivor: Africa" because of the hyenas. As anyone who subscribes to the Animal Planet channel knows, the hyenas are the most annoying creatures in Africa. Imagine a whole bunch of Jerries, except more mobile, hungrier and with really dangerous teeth.

Wed like to see a "Survivor" contestant go face-to-face with a hyena. Or two hyenas.

The truck stops. A Kenyan with a submachine guys starts barking at the rather shell-shocked looking survivors. They clamber out of the truck and look around at open-ended brush and a couple of piles of supplies lying by the road.

"Have a nice day," the guy with the machine gun says. "Bye-bye!"

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Just as in "Survivor" 1 and 2, there are two tribes; the 16 players are divided between them.

In the Boran tribe:

Lex van den Berghe, from Santa Cruz, Calif., is 38 and has been married 10 years. He has a lot of tattoos and works as a marketing manager for an Internet company.

Clarence Black is 24, single and a high-school basketball coach from Detroit.

Diane Ogden is 42 and single and a U.S. mail carrier. She's been married and divorced twice, and has two kids.

Ethan Zohn is the hunk. He's 27 and single and a professional soccer player who lives in New York. He's a vegetarian.

"Big Tom" Buchanan is 46 and married and a goat farmer from Virginia.

Jessie Camacho, born in Puerto Rico, is 27, single and a deputy sheriff in Orlando, Fla. She was a teen beauty queen.

Kelly Goldsmith is 22 and a behavior research analyst in California. It is unfortunate that she shared her SAT scores with the "Survivor" interviewers. But we won't repeat them here.

Kim Johnson, 57, is a Long Island retired schoolteacher who's been married for 37 years. She's has three kids and is a big outdoorswoman

From the Samburu tribe:

Silas Gaither is one of two bartenders in the tribe. He's a 23-year-old Tennessean who lives in Los Angeles trying to make it as an actor. He was a champion boxer in college.

Lindsey Richter is 27 and single. She's a former advertising executive and a mountain biker in Portland, Ore.

Linda Spencer, 44 and married with two kids, is a career services director at Harvard. She beat thyroid cancer -- and later climbed Mt. Rainier.

Kim Powers is 29 and a freelance marketing expert from Conshohocken, Penn. She was engaged to be married, but called it off just weeks before the ceremony.

Frank Garrison, 44 and married, is half Dutch. He's a telephone tech in upstate New York, a former Army guy and a gun nut.

Carl Bilancione is 46, has been married for 21 years, and has two kids. He's a dentist from Florida and a marathon runner.

Brandon Quinton is a 25-year-old gay bartender from Dallas -- but was married during college!

Teresa Cooper, 42, is a go-getter: For 20 years a flight attendant, she's also a real-estate agent and sells cosmetics on the side -- and is another marathon runner to boot.

The tribes split up and head off. It's not an easy trek, and it's fun seeing the survivors hit the dust every once in a while.

There's immediate carping on the Boran side when Diane, the compact mail carrier, grabs the map and starts trudging off.

Says Big Tom, in his dulcet Tennessee tones: "I'm a farmer, and I've seen when the first sheep jumps into a hole, the rest follow. And here we were, following this blond girl through the desert."

And to think that there are those that say Southern guys are unsophisticated and sexist!

The Samburu have a leader problem, too: It's Frank, the Regular Army type, who's trekking on ahead and bossing the others around.

Brandon, the gay guy who was married, doesn't like it. "I'm like, dude! No compassion at all."

The younger tribespeople chatter on:

"Brandon, what's your luxury item?" Kim asks.

"It's chapstick!"

"Really! You rock!" Kim says.

"Excuse me: It's Africa, we're not down here at the mall!" Frank expostulates to the camera later.

"I've got my period!" Lindsey says.

I think on the first day in Kenya, this qualifies as oversharing.

We kinda feel for Frank, but he seems to just be in a bad mood. Someone calls, to make conversation, "Hey, Frank, what branch of the service were you in?"

He replies: "The American branch. It's called Freedom."

Well, lah-dee-dah.

The Borans are tired and decide to dump two big jugs of water out on the ground. Call us armchair survivors, but we think that's dumb!

In the event, Diane gets the Boran to their camp OK, just as easily as Frank, the army guy, does for the Samburu.

Score one for the postal service.

At the camps, the tribes are told they have to build a wall of brush around their camp to protect them from predators. They're also supposed to keep two people on watch each night.

This sounds a little overdramatic. After two seasons, "Survivor" strikes us as playing relatively fair, but we doubt that the group has to realistically fear a hyena attack, though we'll be grateful to be proven wrong.

Still, the countryside looks very inhospitable.

Linda, the Cambridge woman who beat cancer, is a little peeved at some of the jokes -- someone had made a crack about an African word that sounded like "tampon." "This is mother Africa to me," she says. "They're so disrespectful. This is where is all started, folks, in Africa!"

In Linda's book, participating in a silly reality show for a million-dollar prize is an appropriately respectful activity in mother Africa.

We get a new take on some time-honored "Survivor" rituals. These involve finding water and making fire. The tribes have water holes; for the Samburu, the catch is that it's a gross, scummy pool teeming with bugs and tadpoles. The Boran tribe finds a slightly better but still unappetizing muddy water hole.

We see Big Tom and Ethan playing in the water. Tom swings one arm in front of his face and acts like an elephant. It's not a bad likeness.

The water has to be boiled before it can be drunk. Neither tribe can get the fire going. People are getting blisters on their hands as they try to spin a stick fast enough to generate heat enough to set something aflame. Everyone's really thirsty. We see Jessie barfing with dehydration.

"It's not like we're gonna die or something," someone says hopefully

- - - - - - - - - - - -

The attempts to create fire go on for a long time. Isn't that what having Army guys in your tribe is for?

Then inspiration strikes the Samburu. Kim, the one whose giddy talk about Brandon's chapstick had invited Frank's ridicule, finds a telescope in the medical kit. She unscrews it and pulls out the lens. She and Silas use it to focus the sun's rays and set some grass on fire.

"Be careful!" Kim says as Silas sticks his face too far into the smoke. It's a small handful of grass, but Kim, like us, remembers what happened to the last Survivor contestant who inhaled too much smoke.

But soon the pair coax some flame out of the lens. Twenty minutes into the show and the big fighter for freedom has been upstaged by both a mail carrier and a mass comm major.

The Samburu do a fire dance.

Meanwhile, over in Boran begins the series' first scandal. Clarence, the big basketball coach, is seen slipping an extra cherry out of a can the group was passing around.

Ethan, the handsome soccer player, sees him and isn't happy.

"I saw Clarence take two cherries!" he says.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

In this show, there's a combination reward and immunity challenge. It's a big race, in which the groups, with little food and facing dehydration, have to push around a huge cart and light some torches along the way.

The winner gets some matches and the use of the cart.

It's really hard: All eight drive their carts forward, and when the people in the front bite the dust, as they do occasionally, it looks like it really hurts.

Among other things, they have to drag the cart up over a small hill and then over a good distance of sand. Diane, particularly, takes a bad fall, dragging the Boran back. In the end, the Samburu win; they're rewarded both with the cart and the knowledge that they're keeping fire away from the Boran another day.

The Samburu celebrate; the Boran stand around looking unhappy.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

As has happened on previous "Survivors," a loss like this thoroughly demoralizes the tribe and causes further problems.

When the Boran get back, there's a trek to get water.

Clarence says he'll stay back at the camp and nurse Diane, who's toast after the challenge.

On the trek, Tom notes that they didn't inventory their food. Clarence loves those cherries, he says.

When the others come back, they immediately find out that Clarence had, without consulting the others, opened up a can of beans and shared it with Diane. He's obviously dissembling when he says he opened it only for the ailing Diane.

Diane says she didn't ask for any beans. The group gets in Clarence's face.

"It's a big deal to me!" says Ethan.

"If I had a gun I'd shoot you!" blustery Tom says.

It gets worse. Clarence is black and had been seen giving elaborate street handshakes with the other players. It seems extraneous to the matter at hand, but Tom is merciless. "Yesterday you were doing that jive handshaking thing," he says. "Today you shake my way."

"We were starting to build trust and now the trust has been broken," says Lex, who's all tattoos and earrings. "Tonight we have to kick one of us out. Today was not a good day to do this."

It's hard to argue with him.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Diane's vulnerable as well when the group arrives at the tribal council that night. The Boran were upset she was such a drag in the challenge.

Jeff Probst, king of all the hyenas, asks Clarence about the Great Bean Robbery.

Clarence tries to put as good spin as possible on it. "I feel horrible about it, and you don't feel like that with strangers; you feel that way about people you care about."

It doesn't look like the others are buying what he's selling.

"I forgive but I don't forget," Tom says.

But Diane is the sacrificial gazelle. No one thinks she's strong enough for the exertions ahead. Clarence gets dinged by Diana and Tom; the other six off Diane. Out in the reserve, a hyena howls in sympathy.

-- Bill Wyman

By Salon Staff

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