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.
The world they encounter is of breathtaking natural beauty and terrifying poverty. It is a world of kids running barefoot in the permanent cold of El Alto, of miners living short and miserable lives inside Cerro Rico above Potosí, of sharecroppers trying to work the thin soil
and the vertical hillsides of Peru. These are some of the same roads a young and impressionable Ernesto Guevara would ride his motorcycle down a few years later, and you can see how they helped him transform from Argentine doctor into Communist revolutionary. Hanzelka and Zikmund were not Guevara’s kind of hothead, they were social democrats, but it didn’t take a Communist to see the abject poverty and the hopeless lives of the Altiplano’s people, which is described village after village.
On their return home, they published several illustrated books of their trips. Until 1968, that is, when they ended up on the wrong side of the Prague Spring and couldn’t publish again until the fall of Communism, which, happily, both of them lived to see. They are proof that wild, seemingly impossible road trips are the key to a long and happy life, for while Jiří Hanzelka passed away in 2003 at the age of 83, Miroslav Zikmund lives on, a feisty gentleman of 92, working in the Czech city of Zlín. High overhead, the main-belt asteroid 10173 Hanzelkazikmund orbits the Sun every 1971.7 years, its journey only slightly more grandiose than Hanzelka’s and Zikmund’s, who followed their first road trip with a five-year drive across Asia in two Tatra 805 prototypes between 1959 and 1964.
All photos by Jiří Hanzelka and Miroslav Zikmund