Out on the puszta it was peaceful. Just as the founding of the Hortobágy National Park has held modern intensive agriculture at bay and been good for the pastoralists, so it has preserved the landscape for wildlife. Over several days I met up with biologists to be shown the unique habitats of the alfold.
Binoculars in hand, I was kept swivel-necked spotting just some of the nearly 350 species of birds – more than half of Europe’s total – recorded in the park. Some were real rarities. In alkaline grasslands with ornithologist Dr Zsolt Vegvari saw the huge turkey-bulk of two great bustards, as angel-voiced and cherub-winged skylarks soared above us. As further proof of how important the national park is as a habitat, Zsolt told me, wild jackal have made their way from the mountainous countries to the south and east to live in the marshes.
The 15,000 acres of the Great Fishponds and marshes are one of Europe’s most extensive and important wetlands for migrating birds. Huge white-tailed eagles winter on their shores, massive flocks of water fowl arrive each spring and tens of thousands of incoming cranes fill the air every autumn.
A narrow-gauge railway carries birders between the ponds to reach observation towers, hides and marsh walkways; one stop is named after British ornithologist and conservationist Peter Scott. As the train swayed along at jogging pace, even amateur birders were entranced by pygmy cormorants, avocets and shoveller ducks. I watched the flutter-and-fall hunting flight of marsh harriers and two a pair of spoonbills flying overhead, soundtracked by the deep ‘boom boom’ call of a bittern hidden in the reeds.
It seemed that each day I’d been going further back into time and deeper into nature – from the modern lives of the csikos endeavouring to keep tradition alive to the 300-year-old Máta Stud, through the centuries-old herding of the ancient animal breeds, and into the pure emptiness of Europe’s biggest grassland.
The most magical piece of time travel came on my last day when biologist Karin Brabender took me into 6,000 acres of primal grazing where zoo free-living Przewalski’s horses roamed in a loose confederacy of herds and harems. Millennia before, early horses – as well as the auroch cattle, asses and wolves that are also kept in the Hortobágy Wild Animal Park – roamed these lands. Here the world’s last undomesticated horses live free again.
As we stood there, the biscuit-coloured, stubbly-maned mares, foals and stallions grazed closer and closer until they were passing either side of us. It was as if they had just stepped off the wall of a prehistoric cave painting, and as if some 30,000 years still had to pass before the first csikos would mount up and ride off across the plains.