Dave Salmoni

"Let's run to the top of that dune!" yells animal trainer and Expedition Impossible host Dave Salmoni as he guides me to the top of a Saharan sand dune in the southeastern part of Morocco. We're overlooking caravans of camels crossing the horizon against the setting sun. "You've got a friend coming over to say hi," he says, glancing at the dune beetles surrounding our serene ridge — and getting a little too close for comfort. "You've got a beetle-buddy right on your ass!" Salmoni says, laughing. "He wants your shade."

It's the evening before the newest reality competition from überproducer Mark Burnett kicks off its first daunting stage: a 600-foot sand dune that 13 teams of three must scale on pure strength and spirit. Weighed down by backpacks full of equipment and supplies, and with temperatures reaching 95 degrees by noon, the 390-mile trek will push players to their limits.

"I think we can all agree that this isn't The Amazing Race," says Burnett as teams climb the dune. "No airports, no Japanese restaurants."

The course — contained entirely within the Kingdom of Morocco — consists of 10 stages, with extreme tasks varying from white-water rafting down dangerous rapids to skydiving over the African plains. The contestants underwent rigorous training courses when they arrived in Morocco that included gear safety, navigation techniques and animal training, since some of their transportation will be on camels or Arabian horses.

Burnett is returning to Morocco after filming a season of his Eco-Challenge series here in 1998. "I chose Morocco for the diversity of the terrain," he says. "All of the challenges relate to Morocco. It conjures up all kinds of images of romance and adventure."

The teams' main goal is to avoid the lastplace check-in and elimination. "This is not about building a world like Survivor, where you're starving," says Burnett. "This is an expedition with a stopwatch and lots of clues."

The adventure — in which teams race for a $150,000 prize and three brand-new Ford Explorers — continues the next day, when the action moves to the Todra Gorge in Morocco's High Atlas Mountains. The teams must traverse the face of a cliff and perform a 300-foot vertical rappel off a rock wall before meeting a snake charmer — and his cobra friends — for their next clue.

"The terrain is like [nothing] you've ever seen before," says Salmoni. "The one thing I keep saying is this has never been on TV."

So who are the brave souls competing? Expedition held an online casting call for adventurers of all ages and backgrounds, and the 13 teams bring their own unique qualities, from former NFL players to three sisters from Kansas. Salmoni stresses one key factor for success in this race: "You're going to hear me telling these guys, 'If you're not a good team, you're done,'" he says. "I don't care how athletic, how smart or how good you are at using a GPS. If you start arguing halfway through this, you're done."

Back atop the dune, against the glow of the waning sun, Salmoni admits he'd like to compete in the race and urges thrill seekers watching from their living room to come along. "I hope the people at home are going to sit back and go, 'I can do that — I'm signing up for next year,'" he says. "I'm hoping that our viewers feel like they're here." Camels, beetles and 95-degree heat not included.

Expedition Impossible airs Thursday at 9/8c on ABC.

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