"SAS: Who dares wins" - NL edition
as seen from the truck driver's cabin
(c) 2021, Darko Bulat
(On how I participated in a Dutch version of the popular UK Chanel 4 reality show of the ultimate toughness, endurance, physical and psychological strength and exhaustion.)
"Who dares wins" is a motto of the UK SAS special forces. "SAS: Who dares wins" is also a title of the UK Chanel4 TV reality show. Dutch version of that show came to Slovenia, and it so happened that I've been asked to participate in the production of that show, just like many locals who are needed either as location finders, fixers, consultants, caterers or such professionals as paramedics who stand by, or even police who needs to know in advance when such production takes place, so that they don't misinterpret numerous possible phone calls about strange looking people wandering around woods, roads at every possible time of day or night.
My role was none of that. I came to be a part of the team because of my truck. The truck is a vintage Y1983 Slovenian made TAM 110 T7 4x4 but in perfect working order. It's a former army truck designated to carry troops (up to 12 with equipment) and material. It has good off-road capabilities and in spite of it's 4,5t curb weight is small enough to fit into the parking space of an ordinary passenger car. That truck gave me a ticket to that show, as the producers decided they needed a truck capable of carrying 10 contestants (or candidates or VIPS as they are also referred to) while following two Land Rover Defenders (my other love. On that later) occupied by the military specialists that run the main part of the show.
(TAM 110 + GoPro)
My task was to drive the truck and in that sense be the only local guy whose face or features can on occasions be seen. So, I was neither contestant, nor specialist, yet I ended up being the closest to those two sets of people. I drove the truck full of contestants and was able to witness their number drop by each day. And I drove it behind one of the Defenders and being trailed by another. For me, whose passion is off-road driving, that was a lifetime opportunity.
I'm not following any reality TV shows. So, when I heard of this one I had to look for it and even then I didn't quite know what to expect. But sure enough, when I saw the production HQ, located in one of the formerly derelict (and therefore in quite poor shape) castles in Slovenia, it was obvious to me that it was serious production, full of skilled and dedicated professionals. Their equipment, cameras, sound systems were just top-notch. The silent generator that provided needed electricity gave life to the whole castle, who was lit all the time, and even during the night, the whole perimeter was almost as bright as during the day.
But the castle was divided into two parts. Only one contained producers, video editors, local helpers. The other part of the castle was for the contestants, their living and sleeping quarters, their facilities and the courtyard (all covered with the cameras 24/7) for their daily routines. Only military specialists (or DS as they are also called, direct staff) go freely from one part to another. Contestants may never go "behind the scene", unless they quit. And then there's a truck driver (me) who drives regularly to and from that courtyard, so technically can be seen on cameras in a distance, but had to commute "behind" avoiding cameras. And before I was told that, I joyfully paraded around, not fully aware that cameras are EVERYWHERE, and that I may look like Mr Been to others...
Original show had several seasons, and in last seasons there were so-called "celebrity" editions. It means that the participants were already established media personalities either from the world of sport, culture, entertainment, etc. The participants of this show were all Dutch celebrities.
(contestants on their first day)
As I will not comment their performance (apart from that I admire them all) one thing is certain. Nothing they did was acting. In that sense, this kind of reality show is as real as it can be. Exhaustion is real. Physical pain is real. Psychological toll is real. I saw their faces entering the truck. I heard their chitchat while driving them to an unknown new challenge, and felt sympathy. But the challenges were numerous and relentless. And the number of contestants inevitably went down. They maximally supported each other, they behaved like a collective, where the strongest give hand and support to the least capable. But, as time went by and the challenges hit harder and harder, their number went down. Their faces showed exhaustion. Their chitchats in the truck were no longer as joyful as in the beginning. (I never got the clue what they were talking about anyway, as I don't understand Dutch, and they used only that).
DS (direct staff)
These guys are robots. OK, I'm kidding, they are in fact very pleasant and friendly guys, and in the end we shook hands and said goodbyes emotionally (ant least I did). I watched them, I was almost part of their team, as I was the only person so close to them and the participants. Producers even made me wear a black outfit for the first day of shooting, so I guess even producers intended that the truck driver sort of be part of that tormenting team. And driving contestants off-road in an old army truck, equipped with wooden benches, well, it's a torment of its own kind. Once I dared to ask one of the outgoing participant "How was the ride in the truck", to which he replied "Rough". And I said to myself, good. As long as they don't vomit or quit because of it... :) Just kidding. But then again, we may not seat on a same bench, but we rode in the same truck. So it was rough for me also.
Back to DS. I never saw them yell or treat contestants disrespectfully. All instructions were given in a calm, very professional manner. Even between themselves, I never got the impression that they would waste words on empty talk. They seldom showed emotions, even exhaustion. They were obviously well-trained and capable of running the show to the highest of standards. Lastly, they did inflict demanding tasks before contestants, but they had to be alert and awake to do it. So, if contestants went through sleep deprivation, it was DS who were deprived of the sleep as well.
(author + DS)
And here's my part of the story. This all took place in Kočevje area during one week. As I live in Ljubljana, it was out of the question that I would daily commute for the show. In fact, it would be impossible because of some night rides as well. So I stayed at a nice hotel in downtown Kočevje, and from there I went for the rides. My truck is old. But I'm even older. And that hit me during that show. I was the oldest participant in the production.
During the course of that week I had the time to contemplate (probably even overthink) about many things. What if the truck breaks down? What if I break down? The elimination game for the contestants felt suddenly very real and very present. What if I give up? Driving daily such truck is not small feat for me. Rides were on road where speeds are higher, and off-road where one must be totally alert about every curve, rock, branch or tree. And knowing that my passengers are Dutch celebrities, living persons, I was overwhelmed with the responsibility for them. I knew I must maintain myself daily in order to perform. I had to sleep good. Also, I had to eat good and stay hydrated. I couldn't afford to let down the production if for a second I'd feel too exhausted or unwell.
So I took great care to sleep as much as possible, and that, I'm sure, was a rare commodity in whole production. Cameramen and microphone men, and producers, for example, they run after the contestants at ungodly hours. They all slept very little. So, yes, I had that privilege. But then again, there are even certain rules about the rest for the truckers, and I can completely understand why. One simply does not want a 4,5 ton (or more) vehicle to go awry because the driver fell asleep. Even missing the engine brake on a steep incline can be fatal. Driving a truck, especially off-road, and double especially during the night is simply so demanding, and nothing should be left unchecked. So many things can go wrong.
And one thing did go wrong. One day that was especially worried about, because I had to start driving from the castle at 3:30 AM, meant that I had to wake up at 2:00 AM. And I especially don't like night off-roading alone. Off-roading is a lot of fun, but only if you are accompanied by the like-minded (and like capable) friends, who you know will help you if anything unwanted happens. Driving in the dead of night from the city to castle meant driving alone in bear habitat, and equally important, area that were in the past known to have some locals equipped with weapons (say, gypsies). Well, I did not want to encounter any of them.
Anyway, that night I picked the contestants at the castle, and then our convoy went away to the designated area. For some reason, the trailing Defender stayed behind, and on some steep road I stayed behind the leading Defender. I was alone, with the contestants in the back. Then I hit full beam headlights in order to lighten up the road ahead. And then everything goes black. Totally black. All electricity on my truck suddenly went out. I lost the headlights, I lost the instrument panel lights, I saw nothing. I slammed the brakes, as I could possibly easily go over the edge, wherever we were at that moment. The engine was still running. That was good. That only truck had the engine that runs even if you lose all the electricity. Even more, you don't even turn the engine off with the turn of the ignition switch back, but you have to press the engine brake on idle in order to suffocate the engine to stop.
I knew I mustn't do that because I surely will not be able to start it again (ok, unless I lift the cabin, and do it another way, provided that the batteries are good, but that was not the point). I did not quite panic, but frantically turning switches and knobs did not help. Finally, DS found out I'm nowhere around, and they turned back and found me and the truck in the total darkness. OK, I had a torch in one hand, trying to figure out what's wrong with the truck and the electricity, but DS helped. They asked, and I confirmed that the truck itself if drivable. So they suggested that they drive very slowly, and I very close by, so they will light the road ahead, and we should be able to reach some spot where we can find the solution. And so we did. I also placed my Maglite torch facing forward through the windshield, and that contraption worked remarkably well. I could drive safely.
DS led to a nice spot where there were some other trucks parked, and where contestants can do some tasks (PT or physical exercise) while I find out what's wrong with the truck. I read the manual, and it was clear that it should be the main 25A fuse. Fuse no.1 that protects almost every other circuit. In a sense dumb solution, but so it was like that. I went for the fuse box, opened it, and the fuse No.1 was toast. As I had the spare, the fix was quick. And the lights came back. What a relief.
But the realization that I could almost at any moment and at any circumstances end up without lights was tormenting me for the several days ahead. I surely did not want to repeat that experience, so I did not touch full beam headlights (never needed them anyway) until I check if there's a problem there.
So that was it. My fears materialized. Not in the worst manner, but so that I get the glimpse of what and if something goes wrong. And I again asked myself, will the truck endure till the end? Will I?
Only one part of my participation was driving. Another was waiting. And during those hours while I was waiting, especially at nights, my thoughts played funny games with me. Being the oldest, do I even fit? Am I too old for all of this? Should there be someone younger in my place? Perhaps someone with more stamina and physical strength? Even someone that can party all nigh long, and go to work another day just like that. That realization that I'm the oldest, with the oldest vehicle as well, gave me a profound feeling of temporariness. Again, none of that would come to my mind if there wouldn't be a night. Hearing wolfs howling or bears moaning did not help either.
So, today it ended, at least for me. Soon as I ended the last early morning Saturday ride, I went back to my hotel room, packed, and back to Ljubljana. Before that I said my hellos and goodbyes, especially with DSes, that I started to admire. Professionals. Hats down.
The show will be aired in the spring 2022, and I'm looking forward to seeing it.
These impressions are made on the last day, while they are still fresh.
After The end
This blog was written right after the end of the filming of the show, however, for professional reasons publishing of the blog was delayed after the show started on a TV. First episode of the show, this time under it's regular name "Special forced VIPS: Vie Durft Wint" was aired on a Dutch TV program RTL4 on December 19th 2021, with subsequent episodes available through Videoland service (https://www.videoland.com/series/500800/special-forces-vips-wie-durft-wint).