Around the world with Czech Tatra campervan

In the early 1930s, Tatra car factory in Czechoslovakia started manufacture of the Tatra 72. This was a continuation of the family of air-cooled vehicles with a tubular central spine chassis. This model was mainly designed for the army. It was fairly small and it had a four cylinder air-cooled engine. The four rear wheels were all driven. As a result of this, the car was able to drive through quite difficult terrain, over uneven tracks and the risk of becoming bogged was relatively low.

Dr Jiří Baum already had experience with two previous Tatras. In 1931 he drove the Tatra 12 from Egypt to the southern tip of Africa with the sculptor Mr František Foit. This was not a hurried trip. Mr Foit was interested in African culture, especially in sculpture. They spent some time in places of interest and studied the work of native sculptors. Dr Baum was interested in zoology and collected specimens, studied the local fauna and took numerous photographs. Their style of travelling was therefore complementary - the car was primarily their method of transport to remote places, not a means of getting from A to B in the shortest possible time.

From today's perspective, the two travellers placed unbelievable demands on the Tatra. The vehicle was often overloaded - Mr Foit's collection of sculptures was often quite heavy - and they drove long stretches with the springs bottomed out. It was often necessary to drive through the sort of muddy terrain nobody would think of venturing out to without a four wheel drive today. Sometimes they tackled long stretches of mountainous driving in reverse, as reverse gear had a lower ratio than first gear and that compensated somewhat for the lack of "low range" gears. There are not too many vehicles which would last for very long with this kind of treatment. The Tatra 12 with its air cooled two cylinder motor made the whole trip without a single breakdown. Only the exhaust, battered by the endless kilometres of driving over very poor roads and bashed by countless rocks remained somewhere behind. On his return from Africa Dr Baum used the slightly bigger and more powerful Tatra 54 for several long trips around Europe. This time he travelled with his wife Růžena. They visited Scandinavia, Spain and even detoured to Morocco. Once again the Tatra proved its worth.

Dr Baum was already an experienced traveller before his trip through Africa. He had already made two trips there, as well as trips to the USA, South America and a study trip to Malaysia and parts of present day Indonesia. In 1928 he completed his doctorate in zoology at the Charles University, specialising in ornithology and arachnology. He was planning future trips, more strenuous yet again, and knew exactly what type of vehicle he needed for them. The Tatra 72 was ideal for his purposes.

It came as no surprise that the custom car body factory Uhlík, which prepared the Tatra 12 for the trip to Africa, received another assignment - a request for the Tatra "travellers edition". This miniature "campervan" came with a kitchenette / photography darkroom and everything for the travelling zoologist. The Baums later playfully dubbed this vehicle "Miss Australia".

After a trial trip to Slovakia, the Baums set off for their biggest and most significant trip - a trip around the world.

The trip started from Prague in the last days of year 1934. The Baums travelled to Italy, where they and their Tatra boarded the Italian ship Romolo and sailed through the Suez Canal to Freemantle in Western Australia. They arrived in the middle of summer, a pretty difficult time for a trip through the outback in a car without air conditioning.

After some time in Perth they went for their first trip into the country, the aim was Lake Austin. The zoological results were not very good, as it was the hottest time of the year. Every living thing was waiting for less difficult times, hidden somewhere under bark or in the ground. On the other hand the Tatra proved itself to be a capable and reliable vehicle.

Jiří and Růžena returned to Perth and soon after went on their second short trip to the southern part of Western Australia. This was much more pleasant and productive. They visited Albany and returned to Perth. It was time to start the trip across the Australian continent. The most difficult stretch is from Perth to Adelaide across the Nullarbor Plain and is still not undertaken lightly today. Today there is a sealed road. In the Baums' time there was an uneven track and each year only a handful of travellers made this pilgrimage.

There is a large petrol station on the border of South and Western Australia and there is a wall of photographs showing how the surrounds have changed over the years. The photograph of "Miss Australia" is the only photograph at the petrol station showing nothing but a narrow track and a primitive road sign on the stump of a twisted tree in the background. All the other photographs were taken in later years when the area was more developed!

They seldom met another traveller and often travelled several days without seeing another human being. There were no towns and just a few "sheep stations" for a significant part of this trip. They even delivered mail to farm mailboxes, as was the custom - the official postman seldom visited this part of Australia.

The most difficult part of this track was the Madura Pass, more or less just a steep dry creek bed, but the Tatra managed to get through without any real problems. Jiří and Růžena enjoyed travelling in dry, deserted country, but they had to hurry up - Jiří developed a rather serious problem with a tooth. The nearest dentist was hundreds of kilometres away. It was very unpleasant but fortunately nothing serious happened and the travellers managed to get to the first big city on the eastern side of Australia - Adelaide.

The Baums continued eastward from Adelaide. They enjoyed an interesting time in Melbourne, where they met and made many friends. They also gave lectures about Czechoslovakia on the radio.

On their way to Sydney they also visited the capital of Australia. Canberra was still very much an unfinished city - when they first arrived, they were under the impression that they were still in the outer suburbs and kept going! They realised their mistake when they found that they were in open country again, so they turned around and returned. Most streets were still without many buildings and the buildings that were finished looked lost in the large opens spaces of the emerging Capital of Australia.

Sydney was the next large city on their trip and the last one was Brisbane in Queensland. Jiří and Růžena hoped to travel further north, at least to Townsville, but they found out that Brisbane was the last harbour where ships could dock and load "Miss Australia". Harbours north of Brisbane used lighters to load and unload ships and that would be difficult or impossible for the Tatra. They decided to leave the car in Brisbane and make trip north by train and boat.

Their visit to Far North Queensland was one of the most interesting and pleasant parts of the whole trip. They met many local people, spent a few days on the (then) almost deserted Dunk Island and became very good friends with the Morris family who were their hosts at Dunk Island. The first part of the trip back south - from Dunk Island to Townsville - was made on small local boats. During this trip they were able to visit Palm Island, where the "blacks" (aboriginals) lived. They were shown native dances and various artefacts but even during their very short visit it was obvious to Jiří and Růžena that the natives were not happy on this beautiful island and that they would prefer to leave.

Soon after their return to Brisbane, Jiří and Růžena boarded the Japanese ship Atsuta Maru with the Tatra for the trip to Japan. The Tatra was unloaded on Japanese soil at Kobe and the Baums travelled from Kobe to Kyoto, Nagoya and Tokyo. It was not a very great distance, but the roads were mostly very narrow, unsuitable for cars and driving was tricky. They liked Japan as the people were very courteous, everything was clean and again and again they were impressed by the good taste of Japanese people. They had the opportunity to visit many interesting places and even made friends with some Japanese families.

The next stage was a visit to the USA. Their original intention was to travel from Los Angeles to New York, but it would be rather difficult in winter time and Jiří had visited the Eastern States before. Instead they travelled to the Mohave Desert, visited several National Parks in California and returned to Los Angeles.

They returned to Europe through the Panama Canal. The trip took almost exactly one year. It was not very fast, but Jiří was a scientist, studying the countries he visited. Jiří and Růžena were pleased with the results.

The Baums planned many more trips in their little four cylinder home on wheels, but they were able to use it only once more. Their trip to Africa in 1938 was already in the shadow of the threatening political situation in Europe. They followed the news in newspapers with sadness in their hearts and deliberated on whether to cut their trip short to return to their homeland. They had no doubts that war was imminent and there was no question that Dr Jiří Baum would personally join in the fight for liberty. In the end the Baums decided to fight in the Resistance, as they would be able to remain together. "Miss Australia" returned to Czechoslovakia two days before the Nazi occupation.

"Miss Australia" was quickly rebuilt back into a truck and sold to a greengrocer in an attempt to prevent it being confiscated by the Nazis for their army. The Baums actively joined the fight - typing up leaflets, helping to pass on foreign intelligence and hiding fellow fighters. Only Růžena survived to the end of the war. Dr Jiří Baum died sometime around the end of 1944 in a concentration camp in Warsaw.

Dr Baum carefully documented his trips with photographs and used specialist equipment for this purpose. One of his cameras was a wooden SLR camera with plates 6.5x9cm and a 42cm lens - it is now on display in the Technical Museum in Prague. If you would like to see more of the photographs than we could print in this book, we would like to invite you to visit our archive on line at

Dr Baum wrote a number of other books about his travels and about the animals he studied with such enthusiasm. He wrote "Africkou divocinou" (Through the African Wilderness) about his trip across Africa. He describes an Africa in this book that no longer exists. The places he describes have since gone through so many conflicts and wars that little remains of the original society and culture. He also wrote "Toulky po USA" (Wandering the USA) about his student trip to the USA just after the first world war. This book is also full of descriptions of places which have changed beyond recognition. His scientific work in arachnology was left unfinished.

Petr Baum

Melbourne, 14.6.2006