“When we returned we were amazed how popular we were”: Legendary traveller Miroslav Zikmund turns 100

Miroslav Zikmund, photo: Jindřich Böhm, ČRo

The great traveller Miroslav Zikmund turned 100 on Thursday. For Czechoslovaks unable to travel much under communism, the books and radio reports produced by Zikmund and his friend Jiří Hanzelka served as a window to exotic parts of the world. However, the pair were barred from public life following the Soviet invasion.

Miroslav Zikmund | Photo: Jindřich Böhm,  Czech Radio
Miroslav Zikmund and Jiří Hanzelka, who began visiting all corners of the world in the late 1940s, shared their exotic travels with the nation via the airwaves of Czechoslovak Radio.

Given the limited technology of the time, the progammes featured actors reading scripts mailed to Prague by the pair.

Miroslav Zikmund – a remarkable 100 years old on Thursday – recalled their first major trips in an interview I recorded with him in 2005.

“I was travelling with my friend George Hanzelka, or Jiří 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.”

As well as doing radio shows, the pair – who drove distinctive, Czech-made Tatra vehicles – wrote articles for magazines and took photographs.

Miroslav Zikmund and Jiří Hanzelka,  photo: Czech Television
They also produced books that together sold over 6.5 million copies and were translated into 11 languages.

“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.

“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.”

Photo: Computer press
Miroslav Zikmund said there was one chief explanation for their enormous success.

“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.”

When the normalisation era began Zikmund and Hanzelka were no longer allowed to travel, or even to play a role in public life.

However, the Communists couldn’t excise them from the national consciousness and they again became well-known faces in the 1990s.

Jiří Hanzelka passed away seven years ago at the age of 82. Miroslav Zikmund continues to live in his long-term home of Zlín in Moravia.