HIDDEN 100 Soma Basu spends some leisurely moments amidst birds, butterflies and blooms at Athoor

The unpaved road that deflects off the Palani Road from Sembatti crossing in Dindigul taluk makes me feel that I am going to encounter very few people on this journey. The crossroads at Athoor village also look deserted. It is early Sunday morning and that could be one of the reasons. But two kilometres down the narrow winding road, my vehicle is lost in a sea of humanity.

Left with no choice, I move at a snail’s pace with the crowd that is headed for the Sadayandi temple by the roadside.

I then speed up my drive through paddy, groundnut and chilli fields with emerald slopes full of cardamom trees forming a majestic backdrop.

A mild sun penetrates the veil of clouds and occasionally I steal a glimpse of a flock of birds flying across. After a few twists and turns on a heavily pebbled muddy tract, dotted with mango, banana, coconut and palm trees, I hit a dead end — a verdant valley surrounding the placid waters of the stunning 400 acre monsoon-fed Kamarajar Lake. This is quaint Athoor, largely free from visitors.

Around the brimming water body, there is a profusion of flowering shrubs attracting a variety of butterflies.

Magenta and white bougainvilleas, hollyhocks, zinnias and other flowers cascade down from well-manicured gardens that circle the lake.

Suddenly I hear the tinkle of bicycle bells and a group of foreigners cycle past me. I am already lost in the idyllic rustic setting where the only other sound is that of chirping birds. The raspy and whiney sounds of crickets and cicadas add to the avian orchestra.

Almost from nowhere a coracle appears in the middle of the water navigated by a lone boatman. He offers me a ride for Rs. 100. I hop on for a lazy float with an eye on the morning sun piercing the mist on the mountain top. The lake turns incandescent.

There are plenty of water birds around the lake. A variety of hardwood and marsh provide good birding habitat and you are up close with 160 varieties of birds here including 35 migratory species.

As I follow the trail, I see humming birds, peacocks, waterfowl, egrets, woodpeckers, sun birds, painted and adjutant storks, kingfishers, herons, cranes, warblers, eagles and a variety of ducks. But there are more and Athoor is a real treat for the bird lover.

By now, the group of foreigners returns, each carrying big garbage bags full of plastic bottles and wrappers from around the temple.

Incidentally, each of them owns and runs a resort around the lake. “We practise responsible tourism,” they shout out to me. It is this hard task of maintaining the region as a “zero waste zone” that adds to the beauty of Athoor.