Swirling mist, winding paths and lush vegetation... the hills are a trekker's paradise, says SOMA BASU

On learning that Thandigudi is also known as "Aadha Kodai" (half Kodaikanal!), I set out on this RLT with mixed feelings. Forty-five km from Kodaikanal, on the road to Dindigul, is this revenue village that has an old- world charm at an elevation of 1,500 metres. But I could hardly believe the package of surprises that lay in store for me atop the hill. First, the journey. As I took the Dindigul Road from Madurai and on to Batlagundu and the Chittaravu forest check-post, the heat and dust gave way to cool verdure. The tranquillity of the drive that wound up 23 hairpin bends on the Thandigudi ghat road was shattered by a convoy of cars. Allowing them to overtake, I followed the cavalcade at my pace only to find them parked next to the State Horticulture Farm and the Forest Department guest house, roughly six km short of Thandigudi.Casual queries revealed an elephant, apparently ailing, had died in the morning bringing the Assistant Conservator of Forests, the Forest Ranger, Forest Guard and other staff to the spot. With the public banned from entering the area, I decided against wasting my time here and proceeded to my RLT destination. Thandigudi, surrounded by the green Palani hills, looked like many other mini hill stations that have been written about in this column, including Sirumalai, Pachalur and Yercaud. Besides coffee and cardamom plantations, the landscape is filled with vanilla, pepper, hill banana, citron and medicinal plants. Carnations and other varieties of flowers added a dash of colour to the greenery. I chose to explore the place on foot. Enveloped in small shola forests, Thandigudi used to have many trekking routes. But now, they are all damaged by prolonged wet spells and the wild growth of flora. Wild boar, barking deer, bison and sambar are occasionally spotted here and in the surrounding evergreen forests. But the department no longer allows trekkers into the forest. Only its staff goes on an occasional recce. I stuck to the tarred road and followed a sign post which said Watch Tower, Pannaikadu. For city slickers it is a refreshing change to trek in the hills.

Visual treat

The backdrop formed by rolling green hills with a dreamy mist swirling up kept me busy with my camera. To reach the watch tower, I had to take a small detour on a slippery muddy track into the forest. The only wildlife I managed to spot was a pair of tiger lizards. But before I could photograph them, they disappeared into the bushes.Work on the watch tower is yet to be completed. But a labourer at the site assured me it was safe to climb up and enjoy the view. And it was captivating indeed. The lush vegetation was a visual treat and the long, winding road cutting through the hills was picturesque. In the valley below, the Maruthanathi, a squarish water body, reflected the silver rays of the sun as they tried to penetrate the grey clouds. A dewy haze filled the area that seemed painted blue. The worker pointed to a peak called the "periya malai", perhaps because it looks the tallest and to a cluster of rocks called "ponnu mapillai rock". Taking a closer look at the rock I realised it looked like a bride and groom, surrounded by friends!As I prepared to return, the worker told me to check out the echoing rock and the dolmen cave. I skipped the first, but took a dekko at the now deserted ancient home of a tribal. Walking down, I passed by the Central Coffee Research Station, the Indian Cardamom Research Institute and the Regional Spice Board Research Station. Thandigudi may have been dubbed 'Aadha Kodai' but the beauty and serenity here cannot quite be experienced in the more famous Kodaikanal. How to get thereThandigudi can also be reached by Palani-Oddanchatram check-post. It is 56 km from Dindigul, 45 km from Kodaikanal, 88 km from Palani, 97 km from Madurai and 126 km from Thekkady.