Feeling the heat of 70 tarantulas falling on my head and walking down my back was never in my plans. Until RTVE and Mediapro decided to gather a group of journalists to travel to the Haitises Natural Park, in the Dominican Republic, in order to visit the recording of El Conquistador, the new program that TVE premieres this Monday, September 11. Its creators say that it is the "most extreme" adventure reality show on television, but since telling it is not the same as living it, they encouraged us to try some of the tests that the contestants will do. And that's how I, who throughout my life have avoided risk and adventure as much as possible, found myself covered in mud up to my waist, with hairy spiders the size of my hand crawling over my body, and I ended up with sunburned skin. and legs full of wounds and bites.
As soon as we landed in the capital, Santo Domingo, they gave us a survival kit: sunscreen and a strong mosquito repellent that looked more like an insecticide than the classic Autan. They alerted us to the presence of gnats, tiny mosquitoes that cause irritating bites, and recommended wearing pants and long sleeves despite the heat and suffocating humidity of the area. The reality is that I never imagined that 72 hours on the other side of the world would be so much: overcoming fears, saying yes to almost everything without really understanding why and helping each other among colleagues who until recently were strangers due to something that I sense is the survival instinct.
The trip planning that RTVE sent us already warned: "You will be able to experience firsthand the harshness of the tests that the contestants will have to overcome." As I always assume the worst and had seen some videos of the program - which has been broadcast for 19 seasons on the ETB - I was only thinking about the idea that they would propose to us to do the cannibal test. I already imagined having to bite raw meat from a pig cut open and then write this report...
I suppose they were pious and spared us that ordeal, but we did come into contact with other types of living beings that were not pleasant. After showing us the test of The Hamster Ball -yes, it is what you imagine: a large metal ball in which two contestants get into, with their feet tied and held by a harness, and roll on the floor, the main course arrived of the day. In the middle of a deserted beach, with the sound of the sea in the background, there was a yellow box suspended in the air by ropes. They didn't tell us exactly what was going to happen, although the drawings of spiders that adorned their walls served as a clue. "You have to stay calm and try not to step on them," Joxean Goñi, director of the program and one of its creators, told us.
Without really knowing why, the next minute I saw myself sitting under the box along with four other colleagues. You can imagine what happened next: I felt the heat of about 70 cockatoos - that's what they call the native tarantulas - falling on our head and the tickling of their paws walking on my back. To reassure myself, I just thought, "If they were poisonous, they wouldn't have let you do it," though that attempt at self-control was of little avail. It was then that confirmation of my suspicion came followed by a warning: "They are not poisonous, but if they feel attacked they can bite."
I only had eyes for a tarantula that was threatening to walk towards my face. We would sit for about five minutes - which seemed like ages - covered in spiders, until members of the team intervened to get them off of us. At that moment I tried to concentrate on keeping all the sensations in my mind and then write these lines. Strangely, I picked myself up from the ground feeling as if I had dared to do something I never thought I would be capable of.
But animals and personal phobias aside, probably one of the most impressive tests consists of jumping into the sea from the top of a cliff located 15 meters high. To the eye, it would be comparable to jumping from a building about five stories high. After climbing a steep hill we found three trampolines, one per team. Here we did notice the nervousness of some production members, who asked us not to go near the edge of the wooden structure for fear that there could be an accident. Meanwhile, they told us that a group of divers check the seabed before the contestants jump in. "The majority of those who climb up here don't want to jump," explains Éric López, the program's tester. In other words, something like an official test taster.
His work is unique: this adrenaline-loving Madrid native won the Ninja Warrior program in 2018 and has now traveled 7,000 kilometers to test, one by one, all the tests and verify that there are no safety flaws. "I can't go for them or direct them with the Play controller," he says, but he can give them guidelines to avoid incidents. "The worst thing is falling on your back. You have to throw yourself into the void with confidence, correct your position in the air and close your hands and feet to enter like an arrow," he says with conviction, without being aware of how difficult it sounds. We don't know if out of fear that something would happen to us or due to lack of time, they didn't let us try the jump.
"What a relief," I thought.
For everyone's peace of mind, pending the contestants -and, in this case, us-, there is always a doctor. "It's the second day that you are here and in two days I have had more work than in 20," he says while treating the wounds on the feet of one of the journalists. He did them when testing another test: The infernal wall, a kind of wooden wall suspended in the middle of a river. It consisted of swimming to get there and, from the water, jumping to grab a rope and climb to the top of the wall. It was practically impossible without physical preparation to climb more than one meter and, from the boat - on this occasion I did not dare to do it because I knew that failure was assured - I saw them fall again and again.
"It's very difficult, you force your arms to try to lift your own weight, but nothing," says one of the improvised contestants while the doctor treated some cuts on his feet.
In the first aid kit there were some bandages, various concoctions to disinfect wounds and a neck brace, but for our peace of mind, Peguero - that's the doctor's name - explained that, until now, he has never had to use it.
In case we hadn't had enough adventures with the experience so far, on the second day they took us to what they call camp hell, where contestants sleep if they lose the tests. Their name reflects the reality they find themselves in: an authentic swamp in the middle of the jungle in which they share oxygen with the famous cockatoos and annoying mosquitoes -among other species-. There they sleep (if they can) in the purest style of Lost or like Tom Hanks in the movie Castaway and it is more than likely that while they are lying on the floor one of these bugs could pass over them. "There are rats, so you don't get scared," they warned us.
Getting there was a real odyssey. The boats cannot reach the shore, so we had to jump into the sea and walk to dry land, "with our slippers on," they recommended. When we reached the shore, completely wet from the knees down, the camp was about 50 meters into the jungle. It was then that they made us a proposal that would mark what was going to happen next. "There are two paths, the one that the contestants have to use, and a simpler one that uses production." Much of the group chose to follow what they called the "easy" path (spoiler: it wasn't), but I thought, "We're here to play." And that's how I entered the path that the contestants follow. A message from Patxi Alonso, executive producer of the program, should have served as a warning: "They can only go there if they arrive at the camp during the day, because at night it is dangerous."
Just a few steps later I understood why it is hell. The ground is a kind of mud and one wrong step was like putting a leg in quicksand. They recommended that we advance by stepping on the roots of the trees, but it was impossible. The feeling of anguish grew when hearing screams from colleagues who claimed to have seen a tan rat.
I was one of the last. I wanted to see where those in front of me were stepping so I could follow their steps if they stayed afloat or avoid them if they fell into the mud. But although the idea sounded spectacular in my head, it didn't help much. A stumble caused me to fall and I sank almost up to my waist. I tried to get out of the mud, but without success: each step sank me deeper and when I tried to get my legs out I noticed what I assume was the root of a tree scratching me. A colleague gave me a hand to help me get out, and that's when the phrase with which Amparo Castellano, Director of Non-Fiction Content at Mediapro, defines El Conquistador made sense: "Without camaraderie and a common strategy, you won't survive here." . Once freed - and completely covered in mud - we returned to the beach along the supposedly easy path and there, without thinking twice, we cleaned the mud from our legs, arms and clothes with the sea water to continue with the day. We couldn't shower until nightfall.
"If they give me the choice of what to repeat, I would prefer that they throw the tarantulas at me again," I commented to another journalist. And, in the words of Castellano, "The conqueror does not win with resistance: he wins with the mind." The production company kept repeating that the program was different from other adventure reality shows because everything was wild and "real" and, although I started out being a little skeptical about it, I ended up agreeing with them. I understood that when you think you have reached the limit and nothing can get worse, the program comes and surprises you. And you also surprise yourself.