In April 1947, two wild and crazy Czechs set off from Prague in a Tatra 87 and drove 40,000 miles across Africa and South America. Přes Kordillery (“Across the Cordilleras”) is their book about the middle part of the trip: from Buenos Aires to Lima, across the world’s then-highest road. It is, as one would expect, the holy mother of road trips.
Jiří Hanzelka and Miroslav Zikmund were college friends in Prague when they devised what must surely be one of the most audacious road trips ever undertaken. Their studies cut short by the German invasion of Czechoslovakia, they spent the years of World War II planning their trip to exacting detail. When the war was over, Hanzelka and Zikmund presented their plan to Tatra, who were so impressed with the planning that they gave the pair a Tatra 87, Hans Ledwinka’s breathtaking, streamlined wonder, until then the favorite plaything of Czechoslovakia’s Nazi occupiers. Hanzelka and Zikmund spent three months at Tatra’s factory in Kopřivnice to learn the workings of the 87 inside out. They knew that in the deserts, highlands and jungles of their forthcoming trip, the only mechanics they could count on were themselves.
Their 1957 book Přes Kordillery covers the 1949 leg of their trip from Buenos Aires across the pampas to Argentina’s Andean cities, up north to the Bolivian border, across the high passes, deep valleys and flat, oxygen-starved expanses of the Altiplano, then down from the mountains to Lima on the Pacific coast of Peru. The edition I read was the 1958 Hungarian translation by Pál Fendt from my father’s library, who owns quite a few books by the pair.
It is a remarkable work, for its artistic beauty, for its keen observations, and for the sheer perseverence it took Hanzelka and Zikmund to drag unsupported that alien submarine of a car across what was then seriously Third World territory. They ford icy streams, drive up and down the deadly Yungas Road, and at one point, they stop to repair the front suspension on the Tatra at 15,500 feet above sea level, on their way to Ticlio in Peru, which was then the highest road pass in the world.
I’ve never been to Bolivia or Peru, but I did travel in January 2011 some of the same roads in northern Argentina that Hanzelka and Zikmund traveled. The provincial dirt roads which snake across remote, 13,000-ft passes look and feel much the same. But the highway up north to Bolivia—which, in 1949, looked like a strech on the Lubumbashi–Kinshasa road—is two lanes of smooth, high desert road zen, where one can comfortably travel a few hundred miles a day. The Tatra averaged 30.