Searching for Giant Rob & Sandra Heads: A Trip to the Survivor Islands

Hello everyone!  I’m Cody, aka Fransesqua, long-time comment lurker and fantasy league loser.  My Survivor credentials include meeting Kelly Wiglesworth in the Atlanta airport, taking classes in college with Corinne Kaplan, gawking at Kathy Vavrick-O’Brien in downtown Burlington, and being flipped off by Shirin Oskooi.  In the Survivor community, I’m kind of a big deal.

As luck would have it, my job recently brought me to Fiji.  As a longtime Survivor fan, I figured I’d take this opportunity to see where the show I love is filmed, and maybe see the giant Rob and Sandra heads in all of their glory.  A quick Google search for Survivor-themed day trips proved fruitless-  as devoted as the Survivor community is, I guess not enough viewers make the pilgrimage to Fiji.  It looked like I would have to figure this out on my own.

My first step was to figure out which islands I would want to visit.  It’s well known that the show is filmed in the Mamanuca island chain, off the western coast of Viti Levu.  But with over 20 islands in the chain, what’s much more difficult to determine was on which specific islands might I find Rob and Sandra greatness. (Editor’s note: I assume there’s a religious idolatry exception if the idol in question is a giant Sandra head, right? I’m no scholar, but that feels right.) After much Googling, I eventually narrowed down my search to the islands of Monu, Monuriki, Malolo, and Mana.  Itinerary in hand, I now needed to find a way to get there.

Through work, I was able to meet Bill.  Bill is originally from a small village on Naviti Island, in the northern Yasawa chain.  Even better, Bill has a boat, and was willing to take me anywhere I wanted to go.  We agreed on a price, and we were off!

My trusty captain Bill

Our first destinations were the neighboring Monu and Monuriki islands.  As we approached the islands, Bill informed me that we would first have to visit the village on the neighboring Yanuya Island to request passage by the islands, which was quickly granted.  In order to set foot on the islands though, we would need to meet with the village chief and present a gift of a kava root, a process called a sevusevu.  We had neither the time nor the kava for this, so I would need to observe these isles from afar.

Monuriki on the left, Monu on the right

Our first pass was of Monu Island.  Monu is rumored to have been the location of Ghost Island, and in my opinion was also the most likely location for the Island of the Idols.  My focus (and my camera’s) was on the southern beaches of the island, but in retrospect I should’ve paid more attention to the northeast beach, as I could see this possibly being the former home of giant Rob and Sandra.

The northeast beach of Monu Island.  The faces of the cliff appear similar to the cliffs behind the Rob and Sandra heads, and the lone rock on the right is distinctive too.
One of the southern beaches of Monu, which could have potentially served as one of the campsites

After spending some time circling Monu, Bill and I next moved on to the neighboring Monuriki Island.  Interesting fact: Monuriki was also the island where the movie Castaway was filmed.  Monuriki was very small, and consisted mostly of an eastern and western beach.  I’m fairly certain that Monuriki serves as the home of the current Lairo tribe.  The eastern beach is the beach that you see the tribe marching across with their torches when they go to tribal council.  This same beach has also been confirmed as the location of the marooning in episode one of Millennials vs Gen-X.

Eastern Monuriki beach (Editor’s note: Could that be the 400 foot cliff Queen Angelina scaled bare-handed?)

As for the western beach, this appears to be where the Lairo tribe lived, in addition to a number of tribes from seasons past.

Monuriki’s western beach, as seen from both sides

Having thus far come up mostly empty-handed, Bill and I next made our way to Mana Island, which would prove to be much more fruitful.  Mana is one of the larger islands, with a small village, one restaurant, and a small hostel.  The southeastern side of the island has been confirmed as one of the major production and shooting locations for Survivor.  Bill and I first circled the island, and couldn’t see much from the boat.  It was about noon at this time, so I asked Bill if I could disembark for lunch.

While eating at the one restaurant on the island, I began asking the server what she knew about Survivor.  She was very familiar with the show, and asked if I wanted to see the set.  She then called her friend Felipe over, and told Felipe that I wanted to see where the Survivors “played their games.”

After lunch, Felipe took me through the local village and to the eastern side of the island.  As Felipe explained it, since it was the fall (their spring), we could easily access this side of the island.  During filming season, nobody- not even the local residents- can visit the eastern side.

Felipe leading me to where the Survivors “play their games”
One of the many guard stations scattered around the island (Editor’s note: In Survivor parlance, they’re called spy shacks.)

Felipe said that the staff and crew live on Mana while they’re filming each season, but they completely dismantle everything when not filming.  While there wouldn’t be any sets to see, he could still show me where they had filmed in the past.  From the top of the hills on the eastern side of the island, Felipe count point out a number of former locations for challenge sets.

One of the former challenge sets, to the right of Felipe’s hand
Three former challenge locations are seen here.  The beach in the top left is where many of the beach challenges are filmed, along with the two indentations in the field.  The middle location was likely the site of the blindfolded challenge in episode 4. Not pictured: The bench Noura used to sit out that challenge.
Butterfly Reef, off the northeast coast of Mana Island, is where many of the shallow water challenges are filmed
Looking back at Mana Island toward the west. Felipe explained that two years ago tribal council was built at the far left tip of the island, while last year it was built at the right point, shown here.
The village and cove on Mana island.  The small boat on the left was my ride for the day.

After showing me all that he could, Felipe and I began to make our way back to the village.  As we descended the hill, Felipe explained that the sets are completely disassembled every year, and all the materials are repurposed by the local villagers.  I can only hope that on some remote Fijian island, a village family is living in a hollowed out head of Sandra Diaz-Twine.

A fence in the local village, perhaps made using repurposed challenge materials?

Overall, I enjoyed my visit of the Survivor islands, even if I was unable to gaze upon Rob and Sandra greatness.  A few final thoughts:

  • I ended up deciding not to visit Malolo, as I had been there a few weeks earlier for work.  It may have possibly been used as a filming location years ago, but the island is now so covered with resorts and civilization that I don’t know how it could continue to be used.
  • I had also considered, and then cut, visiting the small island of Vanua Levu (not to be confused with the large island of Vanua Levu in northeast Fiji, which makes up nearly half of the country), as it was nearly another hour to the north, and is technically in the Yasawa rather than the Mamanuca island chain.  Still, after examining satellite images of the island, the northwest beach appears to be a former campsite as well.
  • Even on the somewhat overcast day that I went, the islands were beautiful, and I saw other islands even more beautiful than these.  I can see why Probst has famously said that he would never want to leave Fiji.

Thank you for reading.  Vinaka!