Few things better capture the crazed cognitive dissonance of our age than this: that while we cower behind masks for fear of a virus so harmless in most cases that you don’t even know you’ve got it, we watch shows like World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji and think: ‘That looks fun. Wouldn’t mind having a go at that one day, if I had the money…’
This year’s Eco-Challenge — don’t be put off by the name: like the James Delingpole Eco TV column, as it’s now officially called, it’s just a marketing device to gull idiots (not you obviously) — comprises a 416-mile, 11-day race by 66 teams around Fiji, across shark-infested seas, down white-water rivers, up flooding canyons, abseiling down waterfalls and so on. It has been revived after several years’ hiatus with the added cruel twist that at any moment, jumping backwards and performing multiple somersaults from his helicopter before landing next to you in his special knee–reinforced trademark adventure trousers is the beaming figure of Bear Grylls to ask just how you’re feeling.
Don’t get me wrong: I love Bear Grylls. The fact that he follows me on Twitter (he has 1.4 million followers, but follows only 761 people) I consider to be possibly my life’s greatest achievement thus far. But gosh it must be horrible, when you’re testing the very limits of your endurance, having Bear turn up to capture you on film at your very worst — there to relay your agony and shame to millions of viewers on Amazon Prime.
Take poor Dan. At the beginning of the race, a fast paddle up-river and out to sea on a native outrigger, Dan and his Team Bend from Oregon surge to an early lead, ahead of the rugged, leathery Kiwi favourites. Wherever they’re from in Oregon, it can’t be from Portland. You don’t get that tough drinking soy lattes. But by the end of the first day — with nine days to go, don’t forget — Dan has burned out with severe heatstroke. It’s so bad he can’t move for many hours, then has to be pulled along the jungle trail by his teammates, like a zombie dog, with a lead attached oddly to his belly. How grateful poor Dan must be that none of this was caught on camera to pique our sadistic relish and schadenfreude delectation, eh?
It’s the human-interest stories that make the challenge so watchable. I can take or leave the travails of Team Onyx whose only vaguely unusual quality is that they are all black — as we keep being reminded at intervals. Much more moving are the struggles of Team Endure, so called because Mark Macy — a veteran of countless adventure races — has developed early-onset Alzheimer’s. His son, Travis, is determined that Dad should enjoy one last big adventure with him.
Another team — sadly one of the first to be pulled out because they failed to make a checkpoint in time — includes two US Iraq war veterans, one a woman who has been rendered deaf by an exploding mortar bomb, and another whose femur has been shattered by shrapnel and reconstructed. I’ve been having a bit of back pain recently and this put my self-pitying whining to shame, watching her tramping stoically up slimy mountain trails and pretending she’s not in agony.
I haven’t seen the final episode, so I don’t know who wins the $100,000 prize. But my money is on one of the two New Zealand teams. There’s another irony. How can it be that a nation that includes perhaps the toughest adventurers on Earth — including the first man up Everest — is also the one that overreacted most prissily to coronavirus, with some of the strictest quarantine and mask regulations on earth, which bizarrely, most of the cowed, compliant population appear to welcome?
A quick word about The Bureau (aka Le Bureau des Légendes), the French espionage series on which I’ve been bingeing insatiably for the past couple of months. A Spectatorcolleague and fellow addict kindly lent me the expensive box set of season five, which is the only way you can see the shocking, dreamlike, arty but oddly satisfying finale, it not yet being available even on cable TV. I’d say it’s up there with the TV greats — The Sopranos, etc — and if it weren’t in French this would have been recognised long ago.
I can’t wait to see what its creator, Éric Rochant, comes up with next. The brilliant characters he created — from Malotru (Mathieu Kassovitz) and his star-crossed Syrian lover Nadia (Zineb Triki) to, almost my favourite, the FSB boss Karlov (Aleksey Gorbunov) — will linger long in the memory like old friends.
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