As part of her job for insight.tv. adventure presenter Francesca Chiorando gets paid to do some pretty cool things for a living. You might also recognise the keen obstacle course racer from last year’s reality TV show, Spartan X, which pitted contestants against each other in ‘games’ of physical strength and mental agility.
I grab some time with Fran to talk Troll hunting, Spartan X, and eating disgusting Icelandic delicacies as part of her new insight.tv Access All Areas TV series, which started yesterday.
Adventure presenter – what a cool job! Have you always been adventurous?
I’ve always tried! As adventurous as the youngest girl of four children could be… I think I’ve given my mum a fair few shocks with my exploits and dreams. I’ve always been a bit of an adrenaline junkie, and always loved being outside, building stuff, exploring. I suppose as I’ve got older, my playground has just got bigger!
You were a contestant on reality TV show, Spartan X – how did that come about?
I received an email one day from a casting director in Holland; a new broadcaster was making a sports game show and they were on the lookout for “smart, strong and fit” contestants. They’d found me through a picture on the Spartan Race website, and then tracked me through my blog. At first I thought it was a generic email and was maybe a bit dodgy, but I went with it, and after a few interviews I was through! Totally random, but not something I ever would’ve applied for so an amazing chance for me.
Did you have any idea of what the format was before the show started?
All I knew was that it was a sports game show, where the contestants would be physically and mentally strong. We would play games that varied from a speed focus, to strength, and also pure mental power. I knew that I could be away for up to three weeks, conditions would be tough and food limited, and I would have no contact with anyone at home. I said yes straight away!
What did your Spartan X experience involve?
So what you saw was what you got. In fact, I sometimes felt the edit made the show look easier than it was. We were in the middle of Hungary for up to three weeks (depending on how well we performed). No contact with anyone outside of the contestants and a handful of crew; limited food – and I mean very limited! Most of the time I was having a piece of bread and cheese for breakfast and lunch, with a tomato or pepper, and then a small bowl of warm food in the evening, maybe rice and vegetables. Sugar and caffeine withdrawal was a big problem. Putting athletes on limited rations should’ve made us all a lot meaner to each other but actually, aside from a few clashes, on the whole we got on really well!
What about the games that pitted you against each other?
We were very much kept in the dark about what would be happening; one day you would play two games, one day one game, rarely no games (games were physical or mental challenges where contestants competed against each other). There were two camps; an elimination camp where you slept outside and performed chores for the guys who performed better – the other camp – and lived in the “castle”. Neither situation was comfortable to be honest, but you did get a little more food in the safe camp, and a little more rest.
Despite being hungry a lot, despite being very tired, despite not having a shower for three weeks, sleeping in a tent on a hill with a bed of straw, it was the best thing I have ever done. When the show ended I was so sad that it was over. It’s an experience unlike anything I’ve ever done before, and will probably ever do again. I made some amazing friends, we bonded in a way that was very unusual because we had no choice but to. No distractions such as phones or TV meant that we had to talk to the people we were with and we formed a very special group. Being away from the outside world was amazing, pushing myself every single day was tough but so, so rewarding. I was so strong by the time I left – although a little skinny! If anyone ever gets the chance to do anything like it, I would say go for it. You’ve nothing to lose.
The show included various tests of strength, endurance and mental agility. What kind of training did you do ahead of the show?
I didn’t change up my training massively. I started lowering my food intake so that I wouldn’t feel too hungry whilst there, and did a few intense sessions like hill sprints and PT sessions which I don’t normally do. I’m a big believer in not wearing yourself out, and by the time I got the go ahead we didn’t have long until I flew out!
You’re a keen obstacle course racer. Did your OCR skills help you on Spartan X?
Not as much as I hoped… We had a game on the first day which involved climbing a rope. I’m ashamed to say I didn’t complete it! It was a really high rope climb against a wall, but 7 of the 12 people did it so there’s no excuse. Otherwise, games were really mixed, and would involve random elements like balance, or logic. I think where OCR helped me the most was on a game I was most proud of in episode three. It was the very first elimination game where someone would go home, and the game was a simple dead hang [where you hang from something holding your bodyweight]. My training on grip and upper body for OCR elements definitely helped me a lot there.
What did you find the most challenging aspect of Spartan X?
The first night we were there, it had been a very long day, and I was trying to sleep on the floor of a hill in the middle of nowhere, freezing cold, and feeling like an absolute failure. I lay there thinking I didn’t deserve to be there and I couldn’t do it. Getting through those thoughts and pushing on was the hardest bit. Physically it was tough, but physical pain doesn’t compare to mental.
Following Spartan X you became a presenter for Insight.tv. Was this due to your experience on the show?
Yes! On my last day of filming I was “released” from camp as it were, the routine was to give each person a treat, get their bags and then they would be on their way home. I had to wait a few hours because I wasn’t the only person leaving that day. I was given my treat – a cup of earl grey tea was what I chose! – and started to chill-out and wait. Even though we were pretty gross from three weeks of barely washing, people had been sent straight off and could clean up in their hotel. However, the girl who was looking after me insisted I showered and got cleaned up. I later realised that perhaps this was because the Head of the broadcaster (Insight.tv) wanted to meet with me. We had a chat and she said that she would be interested in offering me a contract, I of course said I would love that but was sceptical about whether it would happen – of course it sounded too good to be true! In fact, it did happen, and the next year was filled with all sorts of amazing adventures.
You’ve done everything from trek the Sahara to learn survival skills – what adventure have you enjoyed the most?
All of the episodes of my new series, Access All Areas, are really varied, from extreme physical challenges like trekking the Sahara, to more historical and political episodes like when I joined the Orange Parades in Belfast. I think the episode I enjoyed the most was episode 8, which was filmed in Massachusetts. This episode focussed heavily on the paranormal, the spooky, and the downright weird. Something I’ve always been fascinated in, but have never had any genuine experience of until I filmed this episode!
What’s been the most physically challenging thing you’ve done as part of the Insight.tv series?
Without a doubt it would be episode 6, which saw me take on a two-day trek across the Sahara desert. It was the height of summer and I didn’t have modern equipment – my water was carried in a goat skin! Food was limited, and sleep was thin on the ground the night before I set off, as well as the night I was trekking. I don’t deal well with heat at all, and climbing those sand dunes, which looked like mountains, was like being on a treadmill on incline: I was on my hands and knees a lot, and the top seemed to never get closer!
What about personal fears – have you had to face any on the show?
This is a weird one, but I’m terrified of shipwrecks and I don’t love the sea! In episode 3 I have to face this fear and climb aboard a shipwreck, after making my way there through very choppy waters. I really didn’t enjoy any of that, and was absolutely terrified the whole time. I’d like to say I’ve overcome my fears but I haven’t… but at least I faced them a little bit.
Tell us about the worst thing you’ve experienced so far on the show?
There were a couple of emotional highs and lows when filming. Some stories I heard shook me to the very core – I had to face some very dark sides of humanity and what people are capable of – that was very difficult, but it helped me grow and understand the world better.
In terms of the worst things I experienced there are two things which stand out for me. In the Sahara (episode 6), I was honoured by the Berber family I was staying with by having a goat killed for our dinner. Although it was clean and quick, it was a horrible, horrible thing to see, and made me realise how sanitised and blinded we are to what happens when we eat meat. It certainly gave me a lot to think about and I have been making changes to my choices since then.
The other horrible thing is also food based. When I was in Iceland (episode 4) I tried the delicacy of Hakarl. Otherwise known as raw, fermented shark. Nothing, and I mean nothing tastes as bad as that… I had to eat it three times for camera angles and I was nearly sick every time. If you want a laugh at my expense, then you need to see it!
Speaking of food, in one episode you eat a lizard as part of a survival skills course – can you tell us about this trip?
[Laughs] Yes… the lizard was possibly one of the easier parts of this trip! This episode of Access All Areas was one of the more physically demanding for me, but I think also resulted in one of the best episodes. The basic idea was that I test myself by trekking across the Sahara in the south of Morocco, and see what happens. Before I set out I met several people who taught me what to do, from traditional methods of sun protection to how to protect myself from snakes and scorpions. I also got to try the delicacy of lizard, just to show if you’re really hungry, you can eat anything…although I don’t know how I would catch one!
The trek was pretty hard, we filmed in June so it was very hot, and I was kitted up in traditional gear, although I was allowed desert boots at least.
I carried a very heavy backpack with all my water for the journey which was spread over two days, in a goat’s skin, so it was hot, dirty-tasting, and very, very heavy. I also had a not-very-modern tent, and only had dates to eat. Walking up some of the sand dunes was hell, they were mountainous, and you never seemed to reach the top.
It didn’t help that my camera man was Keith Partridge, who was the cameraman on “Touching the Void”…yep, this guy actually filmed whilst climbing Everest. He certainly kept me on my toes and made sure I was well worn out!
You also went troll hunting in Iceland. What does troll hunting involve? And did you find one?!
Well I can’t tell you that, can I!
It was actually fascinating! I went on a journey through some of the most fantastic parts of Iceland, learning the story and history of trolls as I went. Did you know, they’re called “Trolls” because really, they come from people who are “out of conTROL”… that’s what I was told anyway!
I searched high and low – literally! From abseiling into an ice cave, to trying to make my way to the top of Snaefellsness glacier on the hunt for Iceland’s most terrifying troll, Bardur.
Tell us about your next big adventure?
Well, I do have another series coming out after Access All Areas, but this year I have taken a little break from filming for a totally different adventure – I’m having a baby! I’m due at the end of July, so looking forward to a few months of time at home before I set off new adventures next year. I’m not sure what those will be yet, though!
Where can we watch Insight TV?
It’s available as on demand service on insight.tv, and in the UK on sky channel 564. My series Access All Areas will premiere on June 19th on Sky and will run for ten weeks.
Follow Francesca’s adventures via social media on www.twitter.com/franchiorando, www.facebook.com/franchiorando and www.intagram.com/franchiorando . You can also read Francesca’s blog, Mud is My Make-Up, at www.mudismymakeup.com