Saturday afternoon: Oceanbeach Rd, Omanu. He walks out of George Cafe's al fresco area like he's stepped out of a surfing magazine. Long curly hair, patterned shorts, skateboard, and headband headphones.

Tom Paterson isn't feeling the cold, he's "hot".

Rewind nine months, and he might be mistaken for Tom Hanks' double in the epic survival blockbuster, Cast Away. He had a longer, ratty beard. Dark tan, and hadn't showered in 40 days.

Read more: Tauranga men picked for Survivor NZ from 8000 Kiwi applicants
Tauranga men pitted their wits against each other and other contestants on Survivor NZ


Nearly a year on from filming Survivor New Zealand, the first runner-up of the show is still adjusting to the finer things in life.

Sipping on a $5 cappuccino, the school teacher and local surfie was worse for wear when he returned from rugged South America to populous Mount Maunganui.

His mouth was riddled with ulcers. He had lost 11kg through stress, hunger and lack of sleep. By his own admission, he was "weird looking".

It took weeks for his bed to feel comfortable again - it was too soft. Sugar gave him headaches. Rich food made him vomit. The silence of being home alone and enclosed in a room was eerie. After staring at a fire for hours on end on a remote island, the internet was fast and over-stimulating.

He was recovering from "passive aggressive bullying". He second guessed conversations around him. What had they meant? Did they want something from him? No, the game was over.

"Your mind is having trouble flicking between the two worlds when you come back ... I feel like the biggest surprise for me was how soaked into that world you get," the 26-year-old says of the ultimate test of mind and body. "Your memory starts to dilute everything else in the real world. You just hone in and it's survival."

The New Zealand adaptation of the long-running hit reality show was screened over 20 episodes and filmed in Nicaragua - a place where fireflies dance to the rhythmic beat of the ocean. The night's presentation of stars resembles a spillage of silvery sugar pearls. And when phosphorus bombshells burst, the explosion showers black sand into light. During the day, temperatures soar to a heady 30C to 40C.

"When you did physical stuff, you got dizzy ... You knew you weren't going to finish (a challenge), go have a drink, go hang out in air-con. One day we actually ran out of drinking water pretty early in the day."

Selected as one of 16 Kiwi competitors out of a pool of 8000, he entered a video, which had originally been filmed as an unsuccessful entry for TV's The Amazing Race.

"That audition tape was kind of a satire of audition tapes ... I didn't have a video for Survivor so it was just kind of on a whim. Throw it in, throw in a random photo, and then they found it funny."

He's a humorous guy, he says.

"I would have been typecast. There would've been me versus some other teacher somewhere fighting for a place."

He bossed the game, but it was brutal.

"You get a pretty hard line from the producers: 'You're on Survivor, get into gear'."

He was comfortable in front of the cameras, and hasn't ruled out a career change. He's just resigned from his job as a teacher at Otumoetai Intermediate School to travel and relief teach.

Tom Paterson with girlfriend Christina Macpherson. Photo/instagram/@christinamacpherson
Tom Paterson with girlfriend Christina Macpherson. Photo/instagram/@christinamacpherson

He is engaged to Australian model and writer, Christina Macpherson (no relation to the famous Elle) who has 72,000 social media followers on Instagram. The pair are currently travelling and working together on upcoming creative projects, as well as talking with TVNZ about other opportunities yet to be made public. He might not have won Survivor, but he has X-factor.

"I don't just want to be 'Tom from Survivor' ... The weirdest opportunities are coming out of it (and) if there's good enough offers, you'd have to consider them and be smart ... I'm not really worried about failure."

Of the show, he says supplies were limited to bare essentials - rice and beans. Water had to be sourced from a well, and the 16 contestants - two from Tauranga (the other was Mike Sparrow) had only water and sand to scrub their bodies.

He recalls feeling like a true Robinson Crusoe when he and fellow contestant Jak Thomas went for a walk and spotted a group of tourists looking for surf breaks.

"We sat up on a hill and were just watching them. It was the weirdest thing ... We'd almost forgotten about (civilisation). Another time, two guys on motorbikes came into camp through the jungle. We went up to them: 'You guys got any food?"'

It's a curious thing to go from city boy to deserted island ruffian.

He would find himself sneaking away as the first sun peeped over the sapphire sea, padding his feet over soft sand, and evaporating into the jungle.

"I was really tired but I'd go away and if we got 'tree mail' the day before (a hint of what was to come), I'd try and de-code it. I'd go and train. So I was in a bush, throwing rocks trying to do weird little things ..."

He was happy they filmed in Nicaragua. The only place he would have hated to compete inwas Guatemala, after watching a particularly gruelling Survivor US series filmed there in 2005.

Kiwi contestants were placed into two competing tribes - Mogoton and Hermosa - they later merged into one tribe, Casar, as cast members were eliminated one by one by their peers. They competed in challenges and formed alliances with the last sole survivor, Avi Ducker-Jones, winning $100,000 in the live final.

The prize is "no way" enough. A better sum would have been $500,000. In the US, the winner gets $1 million. "(But then) a different prize would create a different social dynamic. Create a different tension. One is life-changing, and the other could be depending on who won."

Competitors, who must provide for themselves, had been whittled down to three by the end - Paterson, Ducker-Jones and Barbara "Barb" Raos.

Paterson suspected it would come down to himself and Ducker-Jones but didn't expect it to be a landslide victory: 6-1. "There was over variables (over why I didn't get votes) that I've just got to be okay with, otherwise it'll eat me up. People like an underdog and I'm essentially still that."

He was "genuinely stoked" for Ducker-Jones.

"I think that in this version of Survivor, in this season, he played the game that would get the best result."

Returning home, he wasn't ready to face anyone, but was grateful for routine and the distraction of work.

Filming finished in September last year but the live final was only held this month . "That time, until a couple of weeks back, has just been holding this weird secret."

On conclusion of filming, the three finalists gorged themselves on food and alcohol back at the crew's resort. "They just gave us money and said: 'Get what you want', so we went mad".

Paterson, whose favourite food is eggs, chose a lobster, on top of a steak, with a side of cocktails.

"I actually was throwing up a lot of the food I was eating because my stomach couldn't handle anything."

A highly competitive and physical person, he got what he wanted out of the game and that was to push himself to his limits. His hypothesis: "What does adversity do to me?"

He won't concede he's a sucker for punishment but he would do it again.

Describing himself as "goofy", even on his worst days he could laugh. "Whereas I think other people cracked a bit. You see the best and worst of people."

Alliances and enemies were formed early on, with contestant Shayna "Shay" Tapusoa, instantly putting Paterson on her hit-list. To put it simply: "We just clashed. We just butted heads in the game." There's no ill-feeling.

His incredible mental stamina and physical prowess saw him win five immunity challenges in a row - equal with the most won on any international Survivor series.

One task saw him balancing a vase on a plank with his foot, for three hours. He fell off at the end and got concussion.

"I think I played the hardest. I think I probably pulled out all of the stops when they needed to happen at the right times."

He hit out at the treatment of a fellow finalist, Barbara Raos, saying the last episode before the live final turned into a roast by eliminated contestants that crossed a line. It was revealed even more harsh words were spoken that didn't make it to air.

"Everyone was kind of angry at Barb. In essence, they kind of just got outplayed by someone who was a strategist. It didn't sit well with me."

Born Thomas Paterson to a Maori father and European mum, he grew up with two siblings in Timaru.

He represented New Zealand when at boarding school in basketball (he can shoot a half court), and moved to Australia after university. He came back two-and-a-half years ago with fiancee Macpherson.

Keen on surfing, photography and classic and alternative rock, his portrayal on the show was accurate.

"Every day, I was freaking out for the first half of it. By the end, I'd found my feet."

He's been contacted by super fans as far away as Canada and Indonesia and school kids think he's something else. Who he is, most agree, is a pretty cool teacher.

Being young, he wasn't relying on prize money.

"I don't think I was at a junction at my life where I needed money ... I haven't got heaps (but) when you come back from an experience like that, you think of little things of importance pretty quickly."

With so much time on his hands when filming wasn't happening, he reached a state of meditative bliss.

"I spent a lot of time just sitting on the beach, because you've got hours and hours each day. You have a lot of thinking time. By no means am I a hippy, but it really made me have to think about deeper things that I didn't have time to think about before. I'm more goal driven now ... It was a good sense of achievement. I want to (continue) to improve myself and my position in life."

# Instagram: @tompaterson_nz