Two adventurers set out on Zikmund and Hanzelka commemorative tour

Tomáš Vaňourek, Lukáš Socha, photo: Daniel Konewka

The Czech Republic’s famous travellers Miroslav Zikmund and Jiří Hanzelka lived a life that many dream of. They visited 83 countries with their famous Tatra 87, made over 150 documentary films and wrote over 20 books about their adventures. They brought a glimpse of the world to people living in communist Czechoslovakia and served as cultural ambassadors not only for their country but for its Tatra cars –until the communist regime clamped down on them. Now two young adventurers from Plzeň want to follow in their footsteps as a tribute to their achievements and in celebration of Miroslav Zikmund’s upcoming 100th birthday next year.

Tomáš Vaňourek,  Lukáš Socha,  photo: Daniel Konewka
Miroslav and Jiří met in their teens and while they were still at school dreamed ambitious dreams about travelling the world together and visiting all five continents. They studied maps and worked hard to learn foreign languages. Hanzelka spoke German and French and studied Swahili, while Zikmund spoke English, studied Arabic, and had basic Italian and Dutch.

When they graduated in 1946 the war was over and the communist take-over was yet to come. They were still living in a free country and they boldly reached out for their dream, outlining their travel plans to the management of the automotive company Tatra.

The company, impressed by their plans, seized the opportunity to promote its vehicles, and agreed to sponsor the trip, giving them a silver Tatra 87. After three months of gaining experience with the car at the Tatra factory in Kopřivnice, the young men set out on their first trip. It was a three-and-a-half-year voyage through Africa and Latin America scheduled to last from April 1947 to November 1950, covering 44 countries and 111,000 kilometres.

The trip was everything they hoped for, but they returned to a different homeland – Czechoslovakia was now fully in the hands of the Communists. Initially, the communist authorities treated Hanzelka and Zikmund well; the travelling duo were allowed to publish and bring back film footage of the places they had visited giving Czechs a glimpse of the world and creating the impression of freedom and openness where there was none.

In 1958 they were able to set out on a second trip, taking them to Eastern Europe, Asia, and various Pacific islands with two prototypes of the Tatra 805 truck. Throughout their travels, both took hundreds of photos, made films and wrote articles. In addition, they wrote a weekly radio program about their travels for Czechoslovak Radio, which became one of the most popular radio shows of the time. Since they lacked the means to broadcast from various locations, they simply wrote scripts and sent them back to Czechoslovakia, where their parts were played by actors. Their works of travel literature include 20 books full of photographs and descriptions of the places they visited, including three children's books, and 150 short travel documentary films. And their fame did not stop at the country’s borders -they became the best-selling writers of twentieth-century Eastern Europe; their books sold 6,525,000 copies in the Soviet bloc and were translated into eleven languages.

Miroslav Zikmund,  Jiří Hanzelka
However in 1965 it all came to an end when after visiting the Soviet Union they delivered a detailed and critical report of the poverty and political corruption they saw there. They were immediately blacklisted by the regime and were banned from publishing, but went on writing in samizdat. They got into further trouble with the government for their anti-Communist activities during the Prague Spring in 1968 and for Hanzelka's signing of the Charter 77 manifesto. Their last book, Ceylon: Paradise Without Angels, had already received 120,000 advance orders when it was banned. In the post- Prague Spring period Hanzelka and Zikmund shared the fate of other Czechoslovak dissidents, living in poverty, under constant scrutiny and doing menial jobs. When the Velvet Revolution came in 1989 Hanzelka was one of the dissident speakers on Wenceslas Square. With the fall of the Communist regime, Hanzelka and Zikmund were again acclaimed as heroes, with extensive interviews and rebroadcasts of their films. Life of Dreams and Reality, a new book about their travel experiences, was published in 1997, on the fiftieth anniversary of their first trip.

After the fall of communism, Zikmund finally fulfilled his plans to travel to all five continents by visiting Australia, but Hanzelka was too ill to join him. He died on 15 February 2003. When two years later, Zikmund opened an exhibition of their travel photographs at Prague Castle he said "Jiří, was the best friend I ever had, he passed away two years ago, but every day something happens that reminds me of him and so we are still together.”

Zikmund himself is due to celebrate his 100 birthday next year and two Czech travellers –who have also been friends since their youth and who share the dream of seeing the world –want to follow in their footsteps as a tribute to the Zikmund-Hanzelka duo.

Their travel project is named Zikmund100 and they took off a few days ago from their home town of Plsen. Tomáš Vanourek explains:

“We are planning a “second ” trip around the world, tracing the footsteps of the journey Zikmund and Hanzelka undertook between 1959 and 1964. It will take us to 32 countries and cover 75,000 kilometres. We have nine months in which to do it.”

Like Zikmund and Hanzelka, Tomáš Vanourek and Lukáš Socha needed sponsors and their first steps also led to the Tatra car manufacturer, as well as the Plsen beer brewery. These and other sponsors promised to help and what followed was months of intensive research and planning. The main idea is to visit the same places and document how they have changed in the past 60 years – which should result in a comparative-photo- exhibition of the old shots and the new as well as a full length feature film.

Lukáš Socha says he anticipates a striking contrast in some places and almost none in others.

Miroslav Zikmund | Photo: Jindřich Böhm,  Czech Radio
For instance they visited Japan not long after the war and the towns of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were practically razed to the ground. Now Japan is an economic power, the cities have developed and we’ll be taking pictures of skyscrapers. That will be a huge contrast and that’s what we want to do – bring photos of the same place, ideally with the same composition.“

While Zikmund and Hanzelka travelled in their legendary Tatra 87, Lukáš Socha and Tomáš Vanourek say they will use all means of transport available to man – from planes to donkeys and in some places travel on foot. Tomas Vanourek says this is their biggest challenge to date.

“We have both travelled a lot, wanted to discover the world, and when you do that you keep wanting more and more. And then there was this challenge – a traveller’s dream – going half way around the world in nine months. I think it will be absolutely incredible.”