It’s startling how the right landscape can shape a man. Endre Kaltenecker’s pallor is a wash of pastels and grey, his features hard set with their broken topography etched by sharp lines.

He’s a rugged, stoic vision. With his silent grey eyes constantly tuned on something elusive and impossibly far away, he is beautiful. Like his fellow cowboys, Kaltenecker is an embodiment of the land that created him. But when you look into Kaltenecker’s eyes this white autumn morning there is something lurid reflected in the foreground – the absurd caravan of the listless tourist group.

Kaltenecker is chief breeder at Hortobagy National Park, in the heart of the puszta, the great Hungarian plain that is home to legendary bands of cowboys known as haiduks. The haiduks are a knowing and romantic breed of men almost as wild as their cattle and possibly just as talkative. Witnessing his stifled charm as he addresses our tour group is like watching a carnival lion being forced to do the foxtrot.

Kaltenecker is among almost 30 remaining cowboys on this epic, windswept stretch of grassland that runs for 115km_ outside Hungary’s renaissance-man capital, Budapest. It is a land of folk legends where locals cling fiercely to the wisdom of their ancestors.

Behind his dour façade, Kaltenecker is clearly burning with pride as he explains his haiduk heritage.

“Don’t be fooled into thinking of the name as a translation of animal herder – it is wrong,” he announces to a hapless photographer from Russia who has offered the translation in a mistaken stab at garnering praise. “The name haiduk implies they were fighting – they had to fight to defend their cattle against rustlers when driving them to Italy or Germany. And since they were good fighters, they could rob houses along the road,” he adds with a look that dares us to cast judgment from behind our picket-fences. “They also fought for Hungary’s independence over the centuries.”

Even a cursory flick through history suggests it’s a fair point – the Hortobagy (pronounced something like ‘Horto-bajj’) has been the enduring frontline for successive invaders of Hungary. The Mongols wiped out entire towns on the great plain, before the Turks stormed in and obliterated the fragile urbane settlements that had coloured the long banks of the Hortobagy River. The Romans had a go, as did the imperialist Hapsburgs and finally the Soviets centuries later.

But these 30 or so men in their electric blue tunics and sweeping black hats, descendents of Hungary’s great cowboys, are themselves the descendants of the first true Hungarians – nomadic tribes called Magyars, who still nurture a language like no other in the world and a culture deeply affected by the many foreign powers that have occupied their country through the centuries.

Today the Hortobagy is a deceptively civilised place where Germans and Brits come to bird watch while the cowboys blow away unsuspecting crowds with the dangerous ‘Five-in-hand’ spectacle, where one cowboy stands astride Hungary’s rare Nonius horse while reining four others as they race at a full gallop around the plains.

Our tour guide, a native Hungarian with dreams of moving to Mexico, watches the 30-minute show with a renewed awe. As he ponders the sight of two more cowboys each standing astride two galloping horses with a boot on each back and a trail of electric blue blazing across the grey horizon, he whispers to me: “There is a saying in Hungary that God created Hungarians to fly on the back of a horse,” he says, but halts as the cowboys sweep past within a few metres, whips cracking and tunics screaming in the wind.

The Hungarians clearly are justified in the saying. Even today it is obvious these cowboys have an uncanny rapport with their horses.

For the traveller, the Hortobagy now offers an awesome landscape peppered with the danger and surprise of local traditions. To capture the Hungarian cowboy at his performing peak, you could plan ahead to the first weekend of July when the Hortobagy Equestrian Days festival is taking place. The event shows visitors the best of haiduks’ unique skills, while slapping on hearty traditional meals like the paprika-rich Goulash soup (Gulyásleves) cooked on open fires on the great Hungarian plains. The mid-August Bridge Festival is another crowd pleaser with its celebrations of horsemanship, Hungarian crafts and displays of historical artefacts from Hungary’s turbulent past, but you will find that year round there are oxen cart tours, hunt riding, dressage and horse riding tours offered to visitors.

Make sure you also get involved in the boat tours offered. These trips feature high speed flatboat tours that jet along the tangled banks of the Tisza River as it winds through Hortobagy plains. The tour offers some of the best views of the plain with a welcome jolt of adrenaline.

“This is the place where foreigners first open their eyes to Hungary,” Kaltenecker tells our polyester-clad group as we clumsily stumble off our flatboats for a glass of the traditional Bull’s Blood wine on the cart ride back to the tour bus.
“When you come here, you visit the homeland of the Magyar – you can feel it in the very rocks you are stepping on,” he says. Eight tourists are suddenly taking great pains about where we are putting our feet.

For more information on Hungary, see Go to Hungary.