From the 1940s through the 1980s, most citizens of Czechoslovakia didn’t have a chance to travel the world.
But they were able experience a vast array foreign cultures through the books, articles, and documentary films created by legendary Czech adventurers Miroslav Zikmund and Jiří Hanzelka – – who brought a little piece of Czechoslovakia with them on their worldwide journeys.
Zikmund was born in Plzeň on February 14, 1919, and attended Charles University in Prague in the late 1930s. It was there that he met Jiří Hanzelka, and the two instantly bonded over their love of travel and developed a plan called “5” in reference to the continents they planned to visit.
While WWII delayed their studies and future endeavors, they approached the classic Czech automaker Tatra in the years following the war with their plan: to travel the globe in a Czech-made automobile.
Hanzelka and Zikmund immediately found a sponsor, and spent three-and-a-half years in the late 1940s driving a silver Tatra 87 across the world. They ultimately visited 44 countries throughout Africa and Latin America, and racked up 111,000 kilometers on the odometer.
While their home country changed significantly during those years abroad, the duo was at least initially seen as a positive influence on Czech culture. Through the 1950s and 60s, they were permitted to continue their journeys through Asia and the Pacific, this time in a Tatra 805 truck, while most citizens were forbidden from travelling.
The duo would produce voluminous travel books, magazine articles, and short documentary films seen in classrooms throughout Czechoslovakia and abroad.
Hanzelka and Zikmund would go on to become the best-selling authors of the 20th century in the Soviet Bloc, selling more than 6 million copies of their books in 11 different languages. Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev reportedly kept a volume of their tome Africa: Dreams and Reality on his bedside table wherever he went.
In the 1960s, however, Hanzelka and Zikmund would be banned from their lifelong project after delivering a critical report of their travels in the Soviet Union and for taking part in anti-communist activities during Prague Spring. While continuing to publish dissident material in underground publications, they were officially blacklisted from writing and forced into menial jobs within Czechoslovakia for the next two decades.
Following the Velvet Revolution, Hanzelka and Zikmund were hailed as heroes and continued to publish books about their travels. Zikmund completed their lifelong “5” project by visiting Australia in 1989; Hanzleka was too ill to join him, however, and passed away in Prague in 2003.
Zikmund, meanwhile, has retired to a quiet life in Zlín and today celebrates his 100th birthday. He was awarded the Czech Republic’s top honor, the Order of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, in 2014, but politely declined press interviews on the date of his centenary.
“Because Mr. Zikmund has celebrated so much already, he does not want to celebrate his birthday, so we will do it for him,” close friend Magdalena Preininger, who runs the Hanzelka + Zikmund Archive at the Museum of Southeast Moravia in Zlín, told iDnes.cz.
“We will celebrate it at the museum by opening an exhibition of works of art inspired by the lives of Hanzelka and Zikmund.”
Tomorrow, Czech Post will also unveil a new postage stamp commemorating Hanzelka & Zikmund and their travels.