The sentiments can be overwhelming for Toki, 33.
“It’s an ongoing thing,” he explains. “I’m replying to 90 per cent of the messages I can. I’m trying to thank people, send birthday messages to people, trying to be proactive and engaged rather than shutting myself off.”
That sincere bond, plus his very watchable blend of larrikin, gamer and doting dad, has made Toki a bona fide reality star, now co-hosting hit 10 Play recap show and podcast Australian Survivor Talking Tribal with James Mathison.
“He’s a natural, you know?” says veteran presenter Mathison, 42.
“I honestly think that the idea that you can be someone other than yourself for, like, 40 days on camera constantly is just an absolute myth,” Mathison adds. “Survivor exposes you and if you’re pretending to be something you’re not, then you’ll be revealed pretty quickly on the show. And that’s why the nation loves the guy.”
Toki’s wife Mary and their children saw first-hand that love in the form of an unexpected windfall last September. After getting voted out of Australian Survivor’s 2019 season in fourth place by ally and eventual winner Pia Miranda, Toki became the subject of a fan-created GoFundMe.
Boosters had hoped the self-anointed ‘King of the Jungle’ could take out the Sole Survivor title so he could earn $500,000 to care for his two sons and his daughter, Madeline, who was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis shortly before Toki entered the game.
Their campaign would surpass $320,000 in 24 hours, eventually heading north of $550,000. Toki soon stopped donations, acknowledging how much it meant for him and his family. They would give anything in excess of Survivor winnings to charity and direct well-wishers to make pledges in his name to cystic fibrosis causes.
“It’s amazing just being able to live without having to feel like you have to work 12 hours a day, every day, just to make ends meet,” Toki says, noting that he paid off the mortgage on the family home and can provide his kids with needed support. “I’m where I am financially where I probably would have been now at 50 years old, so I’ve been given a massive head start and I want to make sure I make good decisions from here on out.”
Part of that plan includes returning to as much of a normal life as possible. Toki still works full-time in mining, takes Survivor gigs when they come up, and runs a part-time business. In between that, there are trips to school activities and medical appointments, all made easier by having two cars now instead of one. “He’s got three jobs and I take care of the kids mainly,” Mary, 35, says. “So every single day for us is busy from the second we wake up and busy ’til the second we go to sleep.”
That’s why the generosity of fans has been so appreciated. “Luke is still coming to terms with it,” Mary reveals. “There was so much pressure, and it was kind of just like this ‘you’re never really gonna come to the top, but you just accept your life’. That’s what everyone does. And so for that to happen to him by not actually winning the title of Sole Survivor was nothing short of a miracle.”
The rewards come in seeing his family thrive. Madeline, who turned 1 on March 11, “is now stable on all of her medication”,
Mary says, with Luke adding, “She’s just now walking, so she’s like this little human. We’ve been expecting the worst at times, but it’s been nothing but good.”
Eldest son, Lennox, 8, has autism, and middle son, Nate, 6, has autistic traits, but both are “very sociable”, Mary says, and attend weekly speech therapy sessions. They also get a bit of their personalities from their fun dad. “There’s that fine line where it’s like, how cheeky are you going to be before it comes across as being naughty?” she adds with a laugh. “Right now, they’re still on the good side. At least they have a good sense of humour!”
Someone who gets to see those family dynamics in play often is Australian Survivor winner Jericho Malabonga, whose alliance with Toki made them a force on Network Ten’s s second season. The flight attendant visits when he can and serves as a sounding board for Mary when Luke is away on business. “He legit calls her and they’ll be on the phone for like two hours or more,” Toki says with a laugh. “I have a very special bond with Jeri.”
And though he’s friends with other Survivor alumni, from ‘Golden God’ David Genat to ‘Godfather’ Mat Rogers, Toki’s tie with the ‘Cookie Monster’ has provided him another level of insight and comfort.
“The fact that he has invited me into this life where his kids can trust someone that’s outside of his family members, that’s really special,” Malabonga, 27, says. “I think he has trusted me not just as a friend but as a brother now.”
So much so that one night, after flying from Perth to Sydney to film Talking Tribal, Toki called up Malabonga at 2am and confessed to being overwhelmed by getting an allowance to buy food and being put up in a nice hotel. “He’s like, ‘That’s not for me. That’s just not normal to do awesome things and have people do awesome stuff for me,’” Malabonga says. “He’s like, ‘I’ve never really had time for me.’”
When Malabonga heard that, the reply came easily. “I said, ‘You know what?’ That’s why you’re in the position to be able to receive, because you appreciate it,’” he adds. “He’s so humble about it. The dude’s really cool.”