We left Budapest on the day that Germany announced it would take in migrants, regardless of whether or not they had previously registered and in which country, and Hungary quickly set about bus-ing people out of the city and north to the Austrian border.
Heading off the motorway and into the Great Plains the road deteriorated badly and we bounced and rattled our way along the 20 miles or so into the Kiskunsag National Park. This is part of the steppes of Hungary and is a wild, savage landscape of windblown sandy grasslands under big open skies.
This area is known as ‘Puszta’ which means a peculiar habitat and Hungary is proud of the unique vegetation, bird and plant life that survive in the steppes, and has taken great efforts to preserve the eco-system together with traditional farming culture.
The park is not wholly accessible and much of its alkaline ponds, sand dunes and flood plain forests are not able to be visited. We stayed in Bugac village, with a population of less than 3,000, and happily found ourselves parked at a local inn that was hosting both a summer festival, and a local wedding.
The weather is extreme here, reaching the high 40 degrees in the summer and plummeting to minus 10 degrees in the winter. Severe sun, wind, rain and snow blast the park and not surprisingly local life is lived intimately in small and densely packed low-slung houses clustered around a dusty main street.
Almost to illustrate its changeable nature the weather degenerated overnight and Saturday morning was cold, grey and wet. The day’s festival was cancelled so we wandered out onto the plains.
A vague path took us in a loop of five miles or so across wide sandy meadows populated by giant snails and meadow grasses which looked both burnt and waterlogged.
A deer surprised us by breaking out of brush and galloping across our path. It was an incredibly moody day in the vast landscape.
Inevitably we got lost and looked anxiously around for a signpost and at the ground for vipers, having been warned about them, but saw neither.
Farming life on the plains revolves around shepherding flocks of grazing Rakka sheep and Grey Cattle in a nomadic lifestyle supported by horses. We visited a nearby shepherd museum to look at the traditional methods of building make-shift wooden camps and animal shelters and drawing water from deep wells.
Some contented pigs wallowed in the day’s mud and the Rakka sheep, which we initially mistook for goats, slumbered on top of each other.
We popped into the festival; it was on again that evening, to see the local am-drams prepare for a performance of what we surmised to be a murderous farce. Simon was amazed by the technology being employed to wirelessly mike up all 10 actors for the small audience of 100 or so, in front of a bank of filming cameras and managed by a chap behind a mixing desk the size of a pool table!
We didn’t have a lot of sleep that night as the wedding party, which had begun at 3pm to the strains of ‘Gladiator’, went into full swing at 8pm with a live band belting out western pop songs. They were still going at 4.30am but by then were dreadfully out of tune and the English lyrics had escaped them.
We got a few hours’ sleep before getting up at 8am to bright, hot sunshine. A flock of half a dozen mistlethrushes bobbed out from beneath Bertha and set about scavenging seeds and the odd worm from the ground.
The shepherds of the plains are accomplished horsemen and we had the wonderful experience of seeing a display of their skills at the Sunday noon-time show a short walk from the inn.
Gleaming chestnut hucul horses, the ponies of the Carpathian Basin, nimbly flew around a small arena performing break-neck stops and turns, their riders cracking and lassoing long leather whips and demonstrating great balance and agility.
The highlight was a standing rider galloping five horses at once and sending up clouds of dust from thundering hooves to the whooping delight of us onlookers.
Shortly afterwards, we left the park down the same dreadful road but this time with a feeling of exhilaration and a greater understanding of the way of life in this very unique corner of Europe.