Photography by Gaurav S Thombre
I could close my eyes, take a deep breath… as the refreshing scent of pine trees catches the wind and opens my eyes to the sight of the morning sun piercing through the long and thin needled forest on either side of the snaking road. I could do all of that just riding shotgun in this gorgeous convertible, and turn in to a petrolhead on this glorious morning in the Himalayas if I wasn’t one already. I’m driving the Mercedes-Benz SLC 43 AMG from one switchback to another, falling in love with motoring over and over again, because this has been my dream, driving a sportscar in the Himalayas, and it has taken a long time to feel what I have always wanted to feel – the marriage of adrenaline, pleasure and peace with every breath of my drive.
We started our drive the previous afternoon and I kept the hard roof on the SLC 43 AMG as we crawled out of the bustling city of Dehradun. I’ve heard of a few supercar owners in the Uttarakhand capital before, yet the attention the SLC gets here is nice to see. It is quite a striking car in the flesh. I was yet to drop the roof as I was waiting for the right road to experience the car to its fullest, and the opportunity presented itself on a short stretch of road that connects Dehradun to Rishikesh through a village called Thano. A biker friend describes this road as the Isle of Man of Uttarakhand, and it is a close rip off at the right time of the day. Maybe a graveyard shift would have been ideal but it’s a busy road late in the afternoon and Dehradun was giving up on winter earlier than I had expected. The roof went back up.
We crossed over the Chandrabhaga river that feeds itself in to the Ganga and started climbing up. For the next 80 kilometres, I was turning in and turning out, the sun setting fast on the other side of the mountain and me in the SLC 43 AMG soaking in the last few rays of light. I flicked open the left arm rest and under it, tugged at a button that opened the roof. Then switched the drive to Sport Plus, and you can guess what happened next.
Before the light of the sun escaped the ridges of the Himalayas we were piercing through, I wanted to swallow a lot more of the mountain roads that lay in front of me. The dark would make me cautious and the blinding high beams of oncoming trucks would make me go easy on my right foot so the evening went in a hurry. The second I command Sport Plus on duty, the SLC 43 AMG goes from easy cruiser to slippery sniper. The traction control system offers a little bit of slip when you induce oversteer, but catches it before you find yourself smeared on the guard rail. It allows the playfulness to keep things interesting on a tricky road, without overwhelming you and so you can be enthusiastic on the throttle. In tighter turns, I give the SLC some more boot mid-corner to feel that rear step out with just enough opposite lock in time, and the system learns that quickly to let me stay on the power. It allows the slip and keeps the drive on, and that makes this AMG so entertaining on these mountain roads. Sportscars should have this playfulness at all times, and up here while the safety net is essential, the electronics should tread that grey area between foolishness and authority. Finding that grey area is satisfying for a petrolhead. It doesn’t last long as the sun sets halfway to New Tehri.
New Tehri got the ‘new’ prefix because the old town was where Tehri dam’s 52 square kilometre reservoir stores the water of the Bhagirathi. One lakh people were relocated to higher slopes of the adjoining mountains, and these guys get arguably the best views in the country I have been told. Seeing was believing but in the dark of a moonless night, all I could see was black nothing beyond the trees that lined the slopes. Towards the end of winter, night temperatures here are in pleasant single digits, but things could get chilly if the mountains beyond Tehri receive some snow. You can see the peaks capped in snow and feel the chill from a hundred kilometres away early in the morning. The warmth of the sun and the pace of an AMG is the only thing that could get me crawling out of bed early in the morning, but soon enough, the tyres were warm, the roof was tucked in and we were back to dancing in the Himalayas. We climbed some more to get to the other side of New Tehri to the sight of the dam and adjoining reservoir. This is one of those few places where the journey is as epic as the destination. You will be in awe of the road that leads to New Tehri, mind blown by the might of the mountains and the landscape on its face and jaws will drop as the road opens up to the massive reservoir full of crystal blue water sitting in the lap of the Garhwal Himalayas.
The road turns and twists with the reservoir on the right and the winter morning chill stretching my smile wider than I ever remember it doing. The SLC 43 AMG may be a fast car, may be a fun car and may be a sexy car, but right now, it was just a happy convertible ambling at mundane speeds, letting me soak in the view. There’s no better feeling at the wheel of a car than driving a beautiful convertible in perfect weather on winding roads. A few kilometres later, the road turns its back on the reservoir and I am back in Sport Plus, 362bhp is a flex of the right foot away, and the constant lift-offs keep the exhaust flaps on high alert. The AMG Sport Exhaust system is so perfect on these roads when you are on a little more than half throttle at most times. Get the engine speeds up to about 5000rpm and lift off and downshift before a corner, you hear a drum roll in cheer, bouncing off the cliff of the mountain for you, the front end grips as you turn in with just the right amount of steering lock, and the rear thrusts you forward as you begin to unwind the wheel, accelerate and hear the flaps flap again out of the corner. The rhythm of the exhaust flaps help in concentrating, and the focus sharpens with every curve of the road. The Himalayas unlike the smaller mountains in the west and the south doesn’t have hairpin after hairpin to get you to the top of the mountain. There is no top of the mountain here until you reach the high passes. You move from one mountain to another and the road snakes around its face, turning in and out of its natural formation. It lets you build a rhythm along the way, and that’s so essential because once the road begins to bend, the bends never end. In other parts of the country, the hill climbs end in a couple of hours. In the Himalayas, you could drive in the twisties till you get to the wrong side of the border. These are after all the mightiest mountains in the world.
The SLC 43 AMG hustling through these mountain roads is so rare. I can’t recall anyone driving an AMG sportscar so high up in the world. When we started off, the thought was intimidating. But the SLC’s short wheelbase and compact dimensions meant it was easy to manoeuvre even if the driving conditions got tricky. It sits low and goes fast, yet it is manageable. It doesn’t overwhelm you nor does it feel cumbersome here. Our hotel was up a dirt road that we climbed in the night and the landfill near the Tehri reservoir was a couple of kilometres off the tarmac. If I can drive an AMG so deep into Uttarakhand, I think I will be more adventurous the next time. I can always take in more of these sights of paradise.