Live life in OVERDRIVE: Mercedes-Benz Starstruck

Rishaad Mody Updated: July 21, 2014, 02:13 PM IST

A trip to the Himalayas is on everybody's to do list. It's a complicated, difficult and fairly expensive exercise, but very doable. The same goes for driving an expensive luxury car. Most of us who simply can't own one might get the opportunity to take a short test drive in a dealer car or cautiously (and briefly) borrow a friend's car. Again, it's uncommon to get such an opportunity but it certainly can happen. But what happens when you think of taking said luxury SUV to some of the harshest terrain in the country? No dealer or friend is going to help you with that one. Even most owners would be very reluctant to put their expensive piece of machinery through such an ordeal. In fact, as far as we can tell, we at OVERDRIVE are among the precious few who believe that luxury SUVs should be used as they were intended – taking their occupants through treacherous terrain in absolute luxury.

Starstruck (18)

Which is why we planned on taking four of Mercedes-Benz's finest SUVs up into the Spiti valley where you get some of the clearest night skies. The idea – the cars with the star take us to see the stars. It was going to be a typical OD adventure – long days, challenging topography and some fantastic machines. This time however, we decided to share the joy. After all, why waste all those empty seats! So by the time we left from Chandigarh it was four people from team OD and ten readers as guest participants. Given the scale of the drive we sought some organisational help from rally legend Hari Singh. We also had Raid de Himalaya winner (on a motorcycle mind you) 'Bhantu' helping us get there. Suffice to say we were in great hands.

Heading for the stars

Starstruck (9)Park Plaza is one of the highest rated hotels in Chandigarh according to Trip Advisor and after a stay there, you can understand why

Our long and adventurous drives are generally a thorough exercise in sleep deprivation and our readers got their first taste of the real 'life in OVERDRIVE' with a 4:30am call for breakfast. The Park Plaza at Zirakpur where we were staying organised a large breakfast spread for us 5:00am and we were all ready to leave by 6:00am once the cars were loaded up and customary photographs taken. The destination for the day was Manali which was 300km away. That may not sound like a long distance but we were eager to leave early to avoid the notorious traffic jams that frequently occur near Bilaspur on the highway. As the convoy of two GL 350 CDIs, one ML 350 CDI and one mighty ML 63 AMG rumbled out of Chandigarh we were greeted by the very thing we'd all been dreading – overcast skies and rain. Fortunately it didn't last too long and we soon found ourselves on some fantastically smooth and winding stretches of tarmac. Time to let our readers take over.

Driver swap

Yes, you read that right. The very point of inviting our readers on this trip was to let them experience what life in our shoes is like. And that means letting them drive the fantastic machines we do. So about an hour outside Chandigarh we pulled over and made way for a very excited bunch of people to take the wheel. Seats adjusted, mirrors set and instructions received our readers were raring to go. I was in the white ML 350 CDI and Nobel Aiyappa was the first passenger to jump behind the wheel. Nobel has driven automatics before but he was cautious and took his time getting to grips with the large dimensions of the ML. But soon he was completely taken with just how easy and friendly the imposing looking Merc is to drive. Nobel could have driven all day but we had to regularly swap drivers to make sure everyone got a chance behind the wheel. Chengappa KG, a doctor based out of Delhi was equally impressed with how easy the ML was as he was taken with the punchy V6 diesel motor. It was a similar story in the other cars. After a couple of hours the OVERDRIVE team was back behind the wheels with a bunch of beaming occupants in the passenger seats. The drive to Manali was long and tiring, taking over 14 hours thanks to a long lunch stop, plenty of breaks to shoot and absolutely chaotic traffic in Manali. A word of advice – avoid Manali during peak season, the traffic jams can be worse than the ones in Mumbai.

Our night in Manali was at the lovely Johnson's Café hotel that offers some excellent food, particularly in the local specialty of fresh trout.

A treacherous climb

Rohtang pass outside Manali is infamous for being a rather difficult and painful pass to traverse. The near 4,000m high pass is generally a slushy mess towards the top thanks to a near constant battering of rain or snow. To make matters worse Rohtang is a massive tourist attraction and it's not uncommon to be stuck in a jam involving thousands of cars dotting the mountain side. Naturally we decided to leave before the crack of dawn to beat the traffic, but its turns out we weren't the only self titled smart ones. At 5:15am Manali was already bustling with touts trying to sell us 'ski clothes' and taxi rides to Rohtang. The pass itself was already packed by the time we reached it at 5:45am and we began the waiting game.

Starstruck (25)

Fortunately Rohtang offers some spectacular views of vast valleys and snow capped peaks all around so it wasn't all bad. Smart vendors scurry about with an assortment of quick eats making sure you never get hungry either. A relatively brief three hours later (I've been stuck there for seven hours once) we were at the top of Rohtang and after many poses were struck we began the lonely descent to the bottom. Most tourists simply come up just to see the snow so all that traffic on the pass simply disappears once you cross over to the other side. With open roads we let the readers take over once again. But it wasn't smooth sailing this time as the road was badly broken through most of the way thanks to numerous glacial melt streams that flow across the road. This was the first time the readers were experiencing the off-road ability of the big SUVs. At the touch of a button the ground clearance was raised to its maximum setting through the adjustable air suspension and the Mercs began to eat up whatever terrain we threw at them. We trundled down towards the army check-point of Khoksar ensconced in comfort with the wide-eyed readers amazed at how effortlessly capable these SUVs really were.

The mighty thaw

The GL inches across a dicey river crossing with precariously perched boulders just waiting to collapse onto the roadThe GL inches across a dicey river crossing with precariously perched boulders just waiting to collapse on to the road

Since our convoy was moving slowly given the caution exercised by our readers and the treacherous conditions, Hari decided to move ahead and see what the road was like. Half an hour later we heard over the radio that the road was closed thanks to an entire embankment of boulders that collapsed because of the melting snow. But Hari quickly pulled some strings and one of the many BRO bulldozers that tirelessly keep the roads open was pressed into action. We had an hour to kill before the road was opened so we halted for lunch at Khoksar's famous Sharma Dhaba. After a simple but delicious mutton curry rice lunch, we began the journey to Chhota Dhara, close to which we would set up camp.

One wheel drive

Hari had organised a few mountain bikes from Manali and some of our readers were adventurous enough to hop out of the Mercs and pedal their way down the mountain path. Nobel, Chengappa and Arvind took off on their cycles and soon were far ahead of us as we crawled through. The reason we were slow was that our SUVs were running on massive wheels with low profile tyres that work really well on the road but are susceptible to sidewall punctures when driven over rocky terrain. Slowly but steadily we crossed everything that came our way including some pretty submerged river crossings. One of the crossings was particularly treacherous with massive rocks precariously perched on the edge, waiting to crash to the bottom as the ice melted.

Some were brave enough to cycleSome were brave enough to cycle through the treacherous terrain

In fact, a huge boulder collapsed on the road just minutes before Hari, who was leading the convoy crossed over. His Jeep managed to fit through but our SUVs were much larger. Given the seriousness of the situation, we took over from the readers and began the crossing, following Hari's directions over the walkie. The two MLs managed to get through but in the wider GLs it was a real nail biter. We had to cross the stream as fast as possible given the fact that a frightfully heavy rock could come crashing down on us at any second. But we also had to precisely guide the GLs through, with barely an inch on either side. Making contact with any of the rocks could have been disastrous for the tyres. After some very tense moments we edged the GLs through. The 360 degree view feature that helps you see all around the car thanks to cameras on all four sides was a huge help in situations like this.

The real life in OVERDRIVE

Our campsite was right along the Chandra riverOur campsite was right along the Chandra river

By 4:30pm we were at the campsite which was set up in a beautiful meadow surrounded by craggy mountains. Our tents were a stone's throw from the Chandra river and we had a couple of fast moving streams with pure glacier water running right through the camp. We promised our readers the complete OD experience and that's what they got. So at 5:30pm, just as it started to get really cold we parked all four SUVs near the stream and handed out the wash cloths. Time to clean the cars! And with the sun quickly disappearing and the water temperature just above freezing we began to wash the behemoths. Most of the participants eagerly helped; although a few did an exceptional job of looking busy (you know who you are). Nevertheless, the painfully numb hands were worth it for the beautiful images we managed to capture later that night.

Starstruck (17)Pure glacier water running right through the camp served as our campsite car wash


Ironic as it may seem, we undertook the Starstruck drive half expecting to see no stars at all. The weather forecasts were depressingly gloomy and our two days of driving saw a constant smattering of clouds in the sky. But as the light slowly faded and we huddled around the fire warming our frozen hands someone looked up and noticed a cloudless sky. Ladakh can be an unpredictably cruel mistress but today she was smiling down upon us. As the sky finally turned dark at around 8:00pm the entire camp went silent. Rickety camping chairs were precariously tilted and necks were craned as far back as the spine permits. It was truly breathtaking - there were hundreds, nay, thousands and thousands of stars visible to the eye. Meteors constantly tore across the sky and everyone scanned the pinpoints of light for the constant arrival and departure of satellites. Jatin Rathod, the astronomer who was quiet and reserved throughout the trip was suddenly the star (yes, that was intentional) of the evening. Almost everyone was lined up next to the telescope he set up to get a glimpse of Saturn and its rings. The rest of us simply sat in quiet wonderment, gazing at the brightly lit haze in the sky that Jatin informed us was actually the Milky Way. It was a surreal evening, one that couldn't have turned out any better.

Bikes, kites and hikes

We had previously decided to camp near Chhota Dhara for two nights to make sure we got a shot at clear skies considering the uncertainty of the weather. When you're in the Himalayas there isn't that much to do - no cell phone reception or internet up here. So we improvised. The mountain bikes were put through a lot of use. Others tried their hands at flying kites - something that's pretty easy here thanks to the lack of obstacles and constant winds. The rest of us decided to walk. The plan was to go to the Chandra Taal lake but the approach road was closed so we decided to climb the hill that overlooked our camp. One breathless hour later we were treated to some spectacular views. It can be quite a humbling experience to see your colossal, all conquering luxury SUVs reduced to tiny insignificant specks in the landscape but such is the scale of the mighty Himalayas. The hungry lot of us were greeted by a fantastic lunch spread when we got back. Hari's wonderful wife Simran, was running the kitchen and made sure that we were well fed. The assortment of the food we ate over those two days at Chhota Dhara was shocking - pancakes, rotis, chicken, mutton, prawns, hell we even had mangoes for dessert! The fact that we went to the Himalayas and didn't have to survive on instant noodles is a huge accomplishment in my book.

Mud pools and AMGs

At the touch of a button the ground clearance was raised to its maximum and the big SUVs confidently soldiered onAt the touch of a button the ground clearance was raised to its maximum and the big SUVs confidently soldiered on

Both our days at camp were bright and sunny for the most part which made for perfect weather. The problem was that our journey back was going to be a lot more difficult. The first evidence of thaw was when we came across a huge pool of muddy water under one of the glaciers. Two days ago it was just mildly slushy. The convoy stopped and after a few minutes of contemplation there was only one clear solution - drive through and see what happens. The ML 350 went first followed by the two GLs. I sat in the ML 63 watching the big SUVs slide around, nearly bog down and then extricate themselves from the mess. This was the first time I was driving the AMG in this terrain and I was worried - would this hardcore tarmac monster make it through? Suspension raised, the ML crept ahead, my foot feathering the sensitive throttle. Having been in the other cars I was well aware of the altitude's effect on the engines. High altitude air is thin and low in oxygen content - conditions where most turbo engines begin to struggle. However the AMG engine has such a brutal low end slug of torque that the altitude simply doesn't affect it. As I felt it sink into the ooze I gave it a bit of gas as the ML effortlessly hauled itself out, with the ESP system making sure the power went to the wheels with the most traction. It was laughably easy. In fact, the AMG turned out to be the most unstressed and capable of the four (all of them were running low profile road biased tyres). It was a pleasant surprise that none of us would have seen coming.

The slow crawl back

We had just over 100km to cover from our campsite to Manali but the treacherous road conditions and the caution our readers exercised at the wheel meant that the average speed was below 10kmph. It may have been slow but it was certainly eventful with plenty of deep water crossings and large loose rocks to traverse. By the time we reached the top of Rohtang it was already early afternoon and we were greeted by exactly what we were dreading. A never ending ribbon of cars strung all over the mountain pass as far as the eye could see. It was a Sunday afternoon and half of North India seemed to be at Rohtang to enjoy the snow. Two minutes after we switched off the engine Hari's voice crackled over the radio, "who wants to bike down to Manali?" It was the usual suspects and ten minutes later Nobel, Chengappa and Arvind were helmeted up, armed with a radio and ready to cycle down. We must have been stuck on Rohtang for a long time because the bikers soon radioed in to let us know that they were down the pass and were raring to cycle all the way to Casa Bella Vista, our hotel that was 50km away from Rohtang. By the time the traffic cleared and we were down the pass, the adventurous bikers had already reached the hotel. The experience had them excited enough to begin planning their next trip to Ladakh on two skinny wheels!

Civilisation beckons

Starstruck (18)

After five days of early mornings, long days behind the wheel and two frigid nights in tents,we were finally headed for home. We had a peaceful drive to Chandigarh and stopped for lunch together before departing for the airport. Over a sumptuous meal everyone eagerly recounted their experiences, especially getting the opportunity to drive the mighty ML 63 AMG. Manoj Jeswani, a businessman from Jhansi summed it up perfectly - "When I used to watch the TV show I thought you guys just used to have a bunch of fun and fool around. But now I know that there is a huge amount of work that goes behind these stories and that while it is a lot of fun it's also not easy." Thanks Manoj, finally someone gets it! Jokes aside, the Starstruck drive was a huge success and an experience that was thoroughly enriched by having our enthusiastic readers along. We can't wait to do it again and the invitation is open for you to join us on the adventure the next time around.

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The Park Plaza, Zirakpur

Special thanks go out to our stay partners at Chandigarh, The Park Plaza, Zirakpur which is conveniently located just outside the city and ten minutes from the airport. A quick search will show you that this is one of the highest rated hotels in Chandigarh according to Trip Advisor and after a stay there, you can understand why. Our rooms were large, clean and luxurious. The staff was super courteous and helpful and the restuarant served some fantastic food. They even organised a full buffet breakfast for us at 5:00am. Highly impressive

The Park Plaza, Zirakpur

Special thanks go out to our stay partners at Chandigarh, The Park Plaza, Zirakpur which is conveniently located just outside the city and ten minutes from the airport. A quick search will show you that this is one of the highest rated hotels in Chandigarh according to Trip Advisor and after a stay there, you can understand why. Our rooms were large, clean and luxurious. The staff was super courteous and helpful and the restuarant served some fantastic food. They even organised a full buffet breakfast for us at 5:00am. Highly impressive


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