Epic journey across 5 continents. See the exhibition about Czeck explorers Jiří Hanzelka and Miroslav Zikmund

April 28th, 1947, Thor Heyerdahl sat sail with a replica of a primitive balsa-wood raft named Kon-Tiki from Callao, Peru, to cross the Pacific Ocean to the Polynesian Islands. An English reviewer called it “the greatest sea adventure of our time.”

In the Czech Republic, another great adventure had already begun which would cross 5 continents. This epic journey should be called: The greatest land adventure of its time. The two young Jiří Hanzelka and Miroslav Zikmund began their epic journey in Prague on April 22nd, 1947, just six days before the Kon-Tiki voyage. While the Kon-Tiki ended in Polynesia after only 101 days, Hanzelka and Zikmund spent 10 years on the road. Between April 15th and May 31st, you may learn about their epic journeys at a special exhibition in the Kon-Tiki Museum.

The two men published 10 travelogue and made 3 feature documentaries from their travels and became celebrities in Czechoslovakia. After the 1968 uprising, which they had supported, both had difficulties finding jobs until the late 1980s.

Unlike the “great European explorations” in the 16th to 18th centuries that pretended to discover the world, the epic journey across 5 continents focused on experiencing new cultures, meeting people, and tell the story about these societies to the public back home. Jiří Hanzelka and Miroslav Zikmund, through their travels, brought the world to the Czech and Slovak people. Just as Thor Heyerdahl got people interested in human migrations in prehistory.

Miroslav Zikumnd (standing) and Jiří Hanzelka in in their Tatra 87 in Prague at the start of their epic journey (Photo: J. Hanzelka, M. Zikmund, Museum southeastern Moravia in Zlin).

Two visionaries

Jiří Hanzelka (born in Štramberk, 1920) met Miroslav Zikmund (born in Pilsen, 1919) at the Prague University of Economics and Business in 1938. They soon found out they shared the same passion for travel and getting to know other peoples and places of the world. Despite the gathering clouds in Europe, the two young and optimistic students started to plan an epic journey, which would take them across the continents of the world. Hanzelka and Zikmund wanted to drive their own car, so Antarctica and Australia/Oceania was not included in their itinerary.

World War II upended their plans, as it did for so many others, and the Prague University of Economics and Business stayed closed between 1939 and 1945. The new situation made them more determined than ever to make their dreams come true. Hanzelka and Zikmund presented a plan for traveling the world, researching post-war markets while promoting Czechoslovakian business and industry to the famous Czech automobile manufacturer Tatra. The company became a sponsor of the expedition.

Jiří Hanzelka and Miroslav Zikumnd (Photo: J. Hanzelka, M. Zikmund, Museum southeastern Moravia in Zlin).

The Tatra 87

Founded in 1850, Tatra, from  Kopřivnice in the Moravian-Silesian region of the Czech Republic. The company, then named Ignatz Schustala & Cie, in 1897 produced the first car in Central Europe called Präsident Automobile. Later, the company took its name from the Tatra Mountains near the then Czechoslovakia-Polish border.

Tatra came to international prominence during the period between WW I and WW II, with its line of affordable cars based on backbone tube chassis and air-cooled engines. After new management took reis of the company in 1921 they began focusing on car production and their specialty was luxury cars using the most recent technology, going from air-cooled flat-twins to fours and sixes, culminating (briefly) with the OHC 6-litre V12 in 1931.

The Tatra company produced 3.056 cars of the 87 model between 1936 and 1950. The body of the Tatra model 87 has unique aero-dynamical qualities and it is the first car designed with aero-dynamics in mind. Hans Ledwinka and Erich Übelacker designed the Tatra 87’s streamlined shape, based on an idea by Paul Jaray, who designed the famous German Graf Zeppelin airships. A fin in the sloping rear of the Tatra helps divide the air pressure on both sides of the car. Tatra 87 had a drag coefficient of 0.36 as tests in the VW tunnel in 1979 showed, as well as reading of 0.244 for a 1:5 model tested in 1941. It was powered by a rear-mounted 2.9-litre air-cooled 90-degree overhead cam V8 engine that produced 85 horsepower and could drive the car at nearly 100 mph (160 km/h). Tatra 87 is ranked among the fastest production cars of its time.

The Tatra 87 is the ultimate futuristic car of its time, and fitted very well the two visionary explorers who wanted to see the world.

If you want to read more about the Tatra model 87, please see Wikipedia, which have been used in this section.

The Tatra 87 used by Hanzelka and Zikmund, exhibited at National Technical Museum in Prague (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, Hakjosef).

The author in front of a restored Tatra 87 in Zlin, 2022. You clearly see the aero-dynamic for of the car, with the special "fin" on the back.

The first journey: Through Africa and South America

Their first journey through Africa and South America lasted three years. Due to not getting visas for entering the USA, they decided to postpone the rest of the trip and headed back to Prague. By then they had driven through Europe to Marseille, and after a boat took them and the Tatra 87 to Casablanca, they crossed North Africa through Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt. While in Egypt the two adventurers spent a night on top of the Cheops Pyramid. It was for sure a different time. They continued down along the East coast of Africa, through Sudan, and Eritrea, Somalia, and Kenya, to Tanzania. Here they became the first Czechs to climb the 5.895 m high Mount Kilimanjaro. Then they drove to the Democratic Republic of Kongo, where they arrived in February 1948 to the news that the Communist Party had taken political control of their home country. The African trip ended in Cape Town, South Africa, where they boarded a ship that took them to Buenos Aires.

In Brazil they of course went to the famous beach Copa Cabana, where Miroslav Zikmund almost drowned due to the unfamiliar undercurrents. When they came to Ecuador they liked the country so much and got to know Czech emigrants, and they almost decided to settle down there, but decided to continue their journey northwards. At the border between Mexico and United States of America, they suspended their great trip because the explorers that had travelled across two continents and more than two dozen countries, were denied visa to enter the bulwark of Western Democracy. They headed back to Czechoslovakia and settled in Zlin.

The epic journey across Africa and South America was a great adventure. But Jiří Hanzelka and Miroslav Zikmund also wanted to present their own country, their culture, and attempt to do business. In particular, the car of the future, the aero-dynamic and quite luxurious Tatra 87, stirred interest. This resulted in requests to buy over 6.000 cars from the Tatra automobile manufacturer. Unfortunately, the new management of the company in place, after the Communist came to power, did not followed up on this interest and none of the contracts were executed.

Jiří Hanzelka and Miroslav Zikmund instead began to write up their adventures and published three volumes of their great African trip called Africa: Dreams and reality, two books from their South American adventures. They also made three documentary films that became popular on Czechoslovakian cinema.

Crossing the continent (Photo: J. Hanzelka, M. Zikmund, Museum southeastern Moravia in Zlin).

Union of South Africa (Republic of South Africa) Traskei, Mendu, the youth of the tribe, May 1948 (Photo: J. Hanzelka, M. Zikmund, Museum southeastern Moravia in Zlin).

Crossing the Amazone (Photo: J. Hanzelka, M. Zikmund, Museum southeastern Moravia in Zlin).

Meeting people, South America (Photo: J. Hanzelka, M. Zikmund, Museum southeastern Moravia in Zlin).

Poster for one of several documentary films made after the trip (Photo: J. Hanzelka, M. Zikmund, Museum southeastern Moravia in Zlin).

The second journey

However, the dream of crossing all the big continents of the world never died. They decided to attempt to complete the Project-5 which they had envisioned in 1938, and started their longest journey. The collaboration with Tatra Company continued, but this time they travelled with two Tatra 805 trucks modified into mobile homes. They travelled with their wives.

They began their trip in Türkiye, and continued through Syria, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Cambodia, ending up in Indonesia. They visited Papua, before they again boarded a boat headed to Japan. The trip also took them through large part of the Soviet Union and through Iraq and back home. Again, they were not able to finish their journey by traveling through China, which had a fallout with the Soviet Union at the time.

They left Czechoslovakia in 1959 and returned only six years later. In total, the two friends had spent ten years of their life on the road. They had made their dream, and brought Czechoslovakia to the world and the world back to the Czechs and Slovaks. Even though they were not able to visit USA and Chine during their original journeys, we must say that they successfully completed the greatest land adventure of their times.

April 22nd, starting from Prague (Photo: J. Hanzelka, M. Zikmund, Museum southeastern Moravia in Zlin).

Two modified Tatra 805 trucks (Photo: J. Hanzelka, M. Zikmund, Museum southeastern Moravia in Zlin).

In Nias Island, Indonesia, February 1962 (Photo: J. Hanzelka, M. Zikmund, Museum southeastern Moravia in Zlin).

USSR photographers, April 1962 (Photo: J. Hanzelka, M. Zikmund, Museum southeastern Moravia in Zlin).

The aftermath

Jiří Hanzelka and Miroslav Zikmund settled down in the small industrial town of Zlin, southeast in the Czech Republic. Here they lived in houses next to each other. Despite their fame, when they supported reforms in Czechoslovakia in 1968 they had to abandon any public life. Jiří Hanzelka worked as a gardener while Miroslav Zikmund dedicated himself to writing, both books and film manuscripts.

In 1989 Miroslav Zikmund could finally began his travels again. He visited Japan in 1991, Australia in 1992, New Zealand in 1994, and in 2000 he travelled to Sri Lanka, the Maldives Islands, and to USA. He had finally fulfilled all of his dreams. Jiří Hanzelka could not accompany his friend on these last trips.

The house Miroslav Zikmund bought in Zlin is today owned by Zikmund Villa Endowment Fund and is becoming a cultural landmark dedicated to connecting people under the motto: Zikmund Villa – Gateway to the World.

Zikmundova Vila, Zlin.

Jiří Hanzelka and Miroslav Zikmund (Photo: J. Hanzelka, M. Zikmund, Museum southeastern Moravia in Zlin).