We managed the early start without too much trouble and were at reception at 6am to pick up our lunch packs and meet Szándor, our guide. Whilst he said he had no problems with early starts he did look tired and not yet 100% awake. We drove off in his Land Rover – of course – and set off along the main road towards the east and then turned off into the field on the south, following the rough tractor paths across the fields and grasslands.
Szándor was only guiding as a byline for his main work as programme manager for the conservation of the great bustards. Over the course of the morning we warmed to each other and it was easy and pleasant to talk with him. He was knowledgeable and full of insights, and had an even-tempered character with an understated sense of humour. I probably had the better overall experience, sat in the front of the Land Rover, with a better view of the various birds we saw. We wandered across the grasslands, following the tracks, which sometimes just disappeared completely. Szándor certainly knew his way around though.
Within only a short time after leaving the main road we had entered a very different world, one without tarmac, without cars (well, except us!), without power lines, shops, and definitely without tourists! We did pass some farmers and shepherds. Szándor knew them of course and greetings were briefly exchanged en passant. We stopped a little longer to speak with a shepherd who waved us over. He told Szándor about recent sheep thefts that had been happening. Szándor seemed to be an integral part of this environment and community here, not an interloping tourist guide. The shepherd was very courteous, shaking hands with all of us before telling Szándor his story. We drove past traditional whitewashed farm buildings and sheds with thatched roofs. Mostly it was just flat wide open grassland though, stretching into the distance in every direction. We saw birds, various species:
[NEED TO COPY LIST FROM BACK OF DIARY – ALSO SZÁNDOR’S EMAIL]
but these were, from Szándor’s point of view at least, of lesser interest. We finally reached a spot from where we could observe a couple of great bustards in a field. They were large thick-necked birds. Other birds we saw – well, here’s the full list:
[NEED TO DO LIST OF BIRDS]
We drove to various other spots on the grasslands. Szándor’s phone kept going off at regular intervals. On this “sea” of land it was impossible for us to orient ourselves. All landmarks had disappeared – and this was in plain daylight! After a couple of hours of very enjoyable spotting we pulled into a little village, presumably on the southern side of the puszta protected area, and made a stop at Szándor’s favourite bakery, a simple village shop with just fresh bread and fresh cakes, and the little cheesy-bread snacks (name?) the Hungarians are so fond of. I dropped our two cakes on the floor but they were immediately exchanged for new ones. A little further we stopped for a coffee at a village café. Finally we made a little break into “real” Hungarian life rather than the tourist-oriented version. I always like these simple occasions when we go into a “normal” shop to buy something, whether it’s food or drink for a picnic, a pen, washing powder, a writing book, toothpaste, whatever as long as it’s a shop that is for the locals first and foremost and you can usually easily tell by the bemused looks.
After the mid-morning breakfast we continued our spotting and the two highlights were the marshy wetlands full of hundreds, thousands, of birds, including spoonbills and many others, and the field where we saw little birds (dotterels?) where a National Park ranger, a friend of Szándor, joined us for a while and they stood on the hay bales with their tripods. Through the scope we had fantastic views of the many birds we saw this day. Oh for a shutter button on these scopes! I’m sure that Tim and Erica would have loved this too. It was around noon by the time we finally made it back to the hotel. A six hour trip, longer than we had bargained on, and fantastic fun. We rushed to get our stuff and checked out, exchanged details with Szándor, and then said bye to him.
We picked up Eddie and drove on to Kecskemét, on the south-western side of the Great Plain, near Bugacs, for the famous horse show there. The short (30km?) stretch west from Hortobágy was scenic, past the “Open Sea” (aka “Holland minus the busy bits”), again passing some beautiful bright yellow sunflower fields (as we did yesterday – I had already taken pictures of the fields yesterday), not the withered drooping kind but full of life and colour. Past near and distant farm buildings, with the traditional wells, past grasslands, wetlands, bird habitats.
Once outside the small protected area the landscape was more ordinary. Still very flat but with a more limited horizon because of the trees, houses, villages. We drove on to Kecskemét and reached it late on the afternoon. At first sight it just looked rather ordinary, a pleasant little provincial town. It was only the night before we left that we noticed that it had a very pretty town centre, prettier than the “average”. We got rather frustrated in our hotel search and did the rounds before finally striking it lucky with the familial Hotel Apollo on a quiet side street. It was a good find, with a friendly English-speaking young receptionist. He certainly preferred English to German, which seems to be the lingua franca in most parts. He bounded up the three floors of stairs with our heavy packs – “I’m young and strong!” – before coming back down rather puffed! We had a comfortable room on the third floor. Downstairs on the little terrace at the back, overlooking the small parking area and Eddie but pleasantly relaxing with sunshine and flowers and an awning providing relief from the sun, we had a beer, tried to use the internet (T-Com not working though), then retreated inside when the mossies started coming out as it turned to dusk. We ordered a pizza for delivery, which our friendly Anglophile receptionist brought up to us, and munched it while watching dubbed TV (all the channels but with Magyar voice-overs). Pooped, we were in bed early and crashed out after reading our books for a while. Fantastic morning of bird-watching!