Small world

Animal watching on the plains of Hungary
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The Independent Travel

At every step, as we walked along the rutted path, olive and brown striped frogs, from tiny to large, legs stretched out behind them, dived headlong into the murky ditch water a few feet below. It was as if we had fired the starting-pistol for some staggered amphibian Olympic swimming final.

At every step, as we walked along the rutted path, olive and brown striped frogs, from tiny to large, legs stretched out behind them, dived headlong into the murky ditch water a few feet below. It was as if we had fired the starting-pistol for some staggered amphibian Olympic swimming final.

Most summers in the Hortobagy - the vast, pancake-flat plain or puszta of eastern Hungary - the bread-oven heat keeps the frogs slouching in the cooler water, croaking with tubercular grunts. It can be so hot that atmospheric tricks cause mirages of inviting blue water to appear, shimmering on the sun-bleached grasses of the crispbread plains.

No mirages for us. We saw the real thing. Shallow pools of mucky water dotted the flower-speckled landscape. Most afternoons we were grateful for the occasional plum tree. Not just to gorge on the free fruit, but for shelter from the thundery downpours. The fishponds were full to the brim, their mangrove-dense beds of man-high reed alive with the rattling songs of warblers and the twanging calls of baby bearded reedlings. And the pivoted, wooden-beam wells, such a frequent feature of the prairie-like grasslands in this "big sky" country, remained eerily still. In normally dry summers, they pivot up and down like nodding donkeys, drawing up water for parched livestock.

A third of the 82,000 hectares protected as the Hortobagy National Park - the most impressive part of the Hungarian puszta - consists of fishponds, most of them dug a century ago, and the extensive reedbeds that have grown up around them. Some, like those at Hortobagy-halast, 5km west of Hortobagy village with its ancient, nine-arch river bridge, have hides or viewing platforms to look out over them. It may sound obvious, but with reeds too tall to see over, and 25 square kilometres of reedbed and ponds just in this one place, it's important to try to keep a sense of direction if you want to return to where you started. It was difficult.

But what a cornucopia of wildlife they reveal for anyone equipped with binoculars. Flotillas of ducks, including the ferruginous duck, swim by; black and white night herons perch motionless at the edge of the reeds; jet-black pygmy cormorants line up on a dead branch. And, all the while, our ears were assaulted with a discordant mix of jangling great reed warblers' calls, whiskered terns' hoarse screeching and sand martins' twittering.

You can no longer see long-cloaked cowboys riding their horses to round up herds of corkscrew-horned Racka (pronounced "ratchka") sheep. They wear jeans now. But you can find the traditional creamy-white retriever-like Puli sheepdogs and their huge cousin, the Komondor. Sometimes they can get too close for comfort. I spotted a distant little-and-large pair of these reputedly domesticated canines, competing for the title of best barker of the puszta, making steady progress towards me as I tried, in vain, to concentrate on watching a gorgeous orange and grey red-footed falcon, kestrel-sized and perched on a distant tree. I could have brazened it out with the Puli. But the Komondor, a calf-sized beast with long swags of matted brown hair like a Rastafarian bull at full charge, was a different matter. We jumped in the car and fled.

Calmer circumstances prevailed at the Puszta Animal Park, a rare breeds conservation centre. We eyeballed muddy Mangalica pigs, Racka sheep, a very ugly breed of chicken with a scraggy bare neck, and huge, off-white Hungarian Grey cattle. And all at close quarters, in pens.

There were a couple of Puli sheepdogs, too. But, thankfully, no Komondors.

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