IT’S Christmas Eve in the Himalayas and it’s chilly at five in the morning. It’ll be hours yet before the thermometer grudgingly makes acquaintance with double figures.
But Matt Hugh is a man on a mission, just days ahead of his 37th birthday. He’s travelled from his Hong Kong apartment to Kathmandu, 1,200m above sea level, and capital of Nepal.
From an airstrip in a mountain-lined valley, he’s about to attempt the implausible: take more than 600 guests on a scenic flight out towards Everest – in a 47-seater twin-prop plane.
Yes, we’ve watched Doctor Who. We know what tricks the TARDIS can play – bigger on the inside and all that – but this isn’t a time-travelling police box, it’s an ATR-42-320 light aircraft.
And Matt, with a CV that includes video editing and production stints on some of his homeland South Africa’s most popular television shows, knows how to make the best out of a challenging situation.
He’s also taking inspiration from Icelandic tour guide Albert Armannsson, who famously carried 800 people on his back as he scrambled up rocks to watch the Fagradalsfjall volcano erupt.
Matt, I should explain, is a tour guide with online travel streamer Heygo, offering live streamed, free-to-join, trips around the world. The platform offers interactivity including chat and ‘postcard’ picture capture.
On this cold December 24 morning, however, there’s a difference to the usual routine. Tests have shown that the signal in the plane high up above the mountains won’t be strong enough to go live.
Instead, he’s filming the flight for Heygo broadcast on New Year’s Day, when he’ll be joined virtually by hundreds of viewers – the online counter edges towards 650 on the day, an impressive figure on a public holiday.
Buddha Air’s ‘Everest Experience’ flight takes off daily from Kathmandu but, says Matt, the best time to fly is during the winter months from September to May when the majestic peaks sparkle in the snow.
During the flight, passengers may see 20 of the highest peaks, starting from Langtang Lirung – closest peak to Kathmandu – then onward towards Everest in the East and finally by Chamlang.
You’re provided with a helpful fold-out panorama map identifying each of the mountains you may glimpse, weather conditions permitting. On Matt’s flight, it’s sunny and clear above the clouds.
“Here’s a tip,” he says. “If you’re travelling with a friend, try to bag a window seat on either side of the plane. You’ll want to be on the left-hand side when heading out, and on the right coming back.
“That way you’ll get the best views, just like they used to advise on the classic ocean liners – “port out, starboard home”. And if you’re filming, use a gimbal because you can encounter turbulence.”
Indeed, he does, on the way back, but the camera remains remarkably steady as the small plane swoops over what was once an ancient ocean floor pushed skyward by the collision of tectonic plates.
And here’s a surprising fact. The geological forces that created Everest in the first place remain in play. It has been measured that the mountain rises another 2mm each year.
“Rock at the top of the mountains are millions of years old,” says Matt. “But it was once at the bottom of the ocean, and you can still find fossils of marine life on Everest, which is 8,848 meters above sea level.”
Throughout the subsequent ‘as live’ broadcast of the tour, the guide drops helpful graphics and videos into the chat stream of the titanic geological events that shaped the landscape we are seeing.
Everest, he tells us, was known simply as ‘Peak XV’ – as in Roman numerals for fifteen – until 1876, when it was renamed after British surveyor Sir George Everest, despite his protestations.
In the early 1960s, the people of Nepal adopted the name Sagarmāthā, with means ‘the head in the great blue sky’. It’s original Tibetan name, however, is Qomolangma, ‘mother goddess of the country’.
Those in search of more background should head for the International Mountain Museum in Pokhara, which has a wealth of information and exhibits about the Himalayas, and Everest in particular.
“It’s a fascinating place and you’ll learn a lot about the mountains’ past, present and future, from their formation to their conservation,” says Matt.
But for now, words are unnecessary. Everyone on the plane is looking out of the windows, lost in the wonder of the mountains below. It’s majestic; it’s magical; it’s memories being made.
Matt knows this area well. He has trekked to Everest base camp in the past, sailed over the mountains in a hot air balloon and recently flew through above the valleys in a microlight for a future tour stream.
He’s explored close on 50 different countries, but joined Heygo after heading out to Hong Kong from his homeland three and a half years ago to pursue a career as an NET – Native English Teacher.
Before that he spent 11 years in television, working under real name Matthew Grant as a senior video editor, content producer and director on shows including the hugely popular daytime magazine ‘Expresso’ and news and variety series ‘Top Billing’.
Often teaming with his brother John, he worked behind the scenes on interviews with the likes of Justin Bieber, Jeremy Clarkson and the Top Gear team, and a Nelson Mandela special he put together himself.
Matt turned 37 on December 28. Typically, he was hard at work editing his Everest flight video and planning his next adventures. Follow his tour announcements at heygo.com.
Images in this post taken by Heygo ‘postcard’ picture capture during the online tour stream and courtesy Matt Hugh and Buddha Air.