Hanzelka and Zikmund: the greatest explorers you’ve never heard of

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The Czechoslovak trailblazers set out to discover a world their compatriots could only dream of

When Miroslav Zikmund returned to Czechoslovakia with his friend and travel partner Jiří Hanzelka in 1950, he was astonished to find that they were celebrities.

They’d spent the previous three and a half years traveling through Africa and Latin America, writing newspaper articles, taking photographs, and producing radio programs of their adventures which the pair simply recorded and posted to Prague to be played on the airwaves.

Around the world by Tatra

Hassan II Mosque on the Casablanca coastlineZikmund and Hanzelka began their expedition across Africa in Casablanca — Shutterstock

Zikmund was an adventurer from an early age, traveling around the region then known as Carpathian Ruthenia (parts of present-day Ukraine and Romania) at the age of 16, before meeting Jiří Hanzelka at university. He mentioned his plan to one day travel the world and, in 1947, the two of them set out for Africa.

In what would become one of their trademarks, the adventurers chose to travel by car, but not just any car: they chose a Tatra 87, a beautiful, Czechoslovak-made streamliner with three headlights. This would become an added source of pride to the people back home as their stories made the news.

From the familiar streets of Prague, they headed to Casablanca, across to Egypt and south to Sudan, then on to Ethiopia. In doing so, they became the first in the world to cross the Nubian Desert by car.

Their next challenge was South America, and they drove together from Argentina to Mexico, only stopping when they reached the border of the US. Due to the political situation they were denied entry into the US, but returned home to find themselves famous.

“A hunger for adventure”

Vladivostok skylineVladivostok, Russia — Shutterstock

Speaking later in life about discovering he was a celebrity, Zikmund said that “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.”

While they’d been away, Czechoslovak radio had broadcast over 700 reports of their adventures and a clamour arose for printed versions. These became the book “Africa: the Dream and the Reality”, released in a couple of volumes, as well as the simply-titled “South America”. The first print run of “Africa…” was 50,000 copies, and sold out in two days.

Their next adventure was calling and, still driving their faithful Tatra, they spent the years 1959 — 1964 exploring Asia. They became very popular in the Soviet Union, with over two million copies of their books being sold there, and it was at that time they realized their fame had gone, if not global, then certainly to the furthest reaches of the Soviet empire.

“When we traveled east, [to] Vladivostok, almost every day we had to sign some of our books in Russian,” recalled Zikmund later.

Blacklisted

It was not to last, however. A voyage to Australia had been planned, but their Asia trip had led to the pair criticizing the poverty and political corruption they’d encountered while traveling in the Soviet Union. The Czechoslovak government, under the control of the Soviets, blacklisted the duo, and while they still published in samizdat form, they got into further trouble for anti-Communist activities during the 1968 Prague Spring.

Once the Warsaw Pact tanks rolled in and the period of ‘normalization’ began, the travel dream was over. The pair were forced out of public life and spent the next 21 years in menial jobs until the 1989 revolution. Hanzelka was one of the speakers on Wenceslas Square as the Velvet Revolution toppled the regime, and both were saluted as returning heroes.

The end of the adventure

Hanzelka and Zikmund: the greatest explorers you’ve never heard ofZikmund, pictured three years before his death — Petr Horký, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Zikmund eventually made the Australia trip, although at this point his great friend Hanzelka was too ill to join him. In 1997, on the fiftieth anniversary of the start of their first trip, a new book “Life of Dreams and Reality” was published, concerning their earlier adventures.

Jiří Hanzelka died in 2003, having retired to a small farmhouse to write about politics. Zikmund followed him in December 2021, at the remarkable age of 102. A museum in the town of Zlín in the south-east of the Czech Republic commemorates their adventures in the H+Z Archive, containing their travel journals, 700 newspaper articles, 120,000 photographs, 1,290 taped radio broadcasts, and souvenirs from around the world. Their Tatra 87 was added to the Czech national cultural heritage list in 2005, and is on display at the National Technical Museum in Prague.

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