Legendary traveller, author and filmmaker Miroslav Zikmund opens Prague Castle photography exhibition

Miroslav Zikmund, photo: CTK

Post-War travellers Jiri Hanzelka and Miroslav Zikmund are extremely well-known in the Czech Republic and elsewhere for their travel reporting and best selling books. Jiri Hanzelka passed away two years ago but Mr Zikmund is still going strong at 86; on Thursday he opened an exhibition of their photographs at Prague Castle, and spoke to Radio Prague about the two men's travels and international fame.

Miroslav Zikmund,  photo: CTK
Post-war travellers Jiri Hanzelka and Miroslav Zikmund are extremely well-known in the Czech Republic and elsewhere for their travel reporting and best selling books. From 1947 to 1952 they also wrote a weekly show for Czechoslovak Radio, which was one of the station's most popular programmes.

The first, fateful meeting between the two men took place in 1938, on the steps of a Prague university. While Jiri Hanzelka sadly died two years ago, Miroslav Zikmund is still going strong at 86. He was in Prague on Thursday for the opening of a new exhibition of 160 photographs by the two men at Prague Castle's Stary kralovsky palace (Old Royal Palace).

Jiri Hanzelka and Miroslav Zikmund
Mr Zikmund, who says he only comes to the capital around once a year, very kindly gave me a few moments of his time at the exhibition opening, and I began by asking him when and where the photographs had been taken.

"All over the world, because I was travelling with my friend George Hanzelka, or Jiri Hanzelka, for almost nine years. The first trip was through Africa and Latin America, 1947 to 1950. That was three and a half years, continuously, non-stop. And then Asia, which was between 1959 and 64, and lasted five and a half years. So actually, from all over the world."

Did you both take these photos? Or was one of you a better photographer?

"No, no, no. We participated 50-50. Maybe 60-40, something like that. Both of us had to be not only photographers and film makers, film producers - but we wrote articles for Czechoslovak Radio, and many papers and weeklies."

Tatra 805
In front of the Stary kralovsky palac here there are a couple of old Tatra vans and a Tatra car - are they the original vehicles that you used?

"Two of them, the vans - Tatra 805s - are the originals. But the Tatra 87, the passenger car...the original which we used is in the National Technical Museum here in Prague, so this [one at Prague Castle] is an old time copy."

I was reading today that you sold something like five million books and were translated into 11 languages - were you and Mr Hanzelka aware of how popular you were, not just in Czechoslovakia?

Tatra 87 | Photo: Elena Horálková,  Czech Radio
"Firstly there were more than six and a half million (laughs) - a small correction. But actually we couldn't...suppose that our stories would be so interesting that one day they would be published. When we returned in 1950 we were amazed how popular we were, because we didn't know actually.

"Because the stories were broadcast everybody wanted printed versions. The popularity was so big that the first edition of Africa Dream and Reality was published in 50,000 copies and disappeared in two, three days. Then there reprints, another reprint...six and a half million. As you said 11 languages.

"And what was very interesting - more than two million were exported to the Soviet Union, so when we travelled from the East, from Vladivostok to Moscow, almost every day we had to sign some of our books in Russian."

I noticed here today many people are asking you for your autograph - are the books still being sold in large numbers?

Miroslav Zikmund
"No, no. They're difficult to find in antiquity shops. You see, that time cannot be repeated, because I would say there was some hunger for adventure at that time. When we returned it was two years after the Communist coup d'etat in 1948, and people couldn't travel out. So I think it was not just about popularity but the closed nature of Czechoslovakia at that time."

Did you broadcast directly on the radio when you were travelling? Or did you come back and then broadcast?

"We had not technical means at that time. So we were writing the stories and they were read on Czechoslovak Radio by two actors who actually simulated that one of the speakers was Hanzelka and the other was Zikmund."

You travelled when travelling wasn't so common. In the modern world everybody travels - you can even be helped to climb Mount Everest. Do you think travelling today is perhaps a little bit too easy?

"Yeah, definitely. You see the difference probably is that...you shouldn't forget that when we started our trip two and a half years after the end of the war, there were no travel agencies at that time. Because Europe was hungry, there was a lack of everything. People didn't want to travel, they had to build their houses and so forth. The difference between now and fifty years ago is enormous."

Did you ever find yourself in physical danger during your travels?

"Many times. Even in the regions which we were growing through it belongs to your profession."

In the days of 'normalisation' in the 1970s you weren't allowed to publish. Was it difficult for you to accept the 'end of your adventures'?

"Well, the end of the adventures - I think the adventures were everlasting. I think this is probably the...most beautiful adventure, that you never know one day what the next day will bring to you."

I suppose it's fair to say you are now an elderly gentleman, living in Zlin in south Moravia. Do you often look back on the days of your travels with Jiri Hanzelka?

"Jiri, my best friend in my life, he passed away two years ago, unfortunately. But I still live with him because every day something happens which is bound, is connected with his name. So actually we are still two, even here in this exhibition you find Jiri Hanzelka and Miroslav Zikmund."

The exhibition is on at Prague Castle until the 24th of next month.