With a major two-lane highway running through it, Mikumi National Park might
be one of the only places in the world to offer views of wild animals and
grassy savannahs for the price of a bus ticket. In spite of this – or perhaps
because of it – Mikumi is one of the most underrated parks in Tanzania.
“What makes Mikumi special is that it’s somewhat
forgotten,” said Karen Oakes, manager of Stanley’s Kopje, a
tented camp that opened in the park in 2001. “It is often overlooked by tour
operators…which means it is sort of a hidden gem.”
Mikumi lies along a trade route that has connected the
East African coast with huge inland lakes for hundreds of years. The taste for
ivory and other exotic goods has lured traders, travellers and explorers along
this corridor since the 18th Century, when caravans carried cloth and beads,
copper and spices, ivory and slaves across the same plains and hills now
visited by tourists.
Connected to Dar es Salaam by a well-paved road, the
park can be accessed by private car, bus or safari vehicle. Daily charter
flights are also available for those averse to traffic jams and long car
journeys. If you do have the time to spare, the nearly five-hour drive is worth
it for the views. Heading west from Dar es Salaam, the road traverses the Ruvu
River, tracks along the base of the Uluguru Mountains and meanders through
sisal plantations and a string of small villages.
Once inside the southern Tanzania park, the highway cannot
be seen or heard, but it makes Mikumi one of the most accessible places in
Tanzania to see lions, buffalo, hippopotamus, gazelles, elands, warthogs and
yellow baboons (not to mention more than 400 species of birds). “It is an excellent
place for Tanzanians to discover their own natural history,” said Oakes, an
Australian who has worked in the park for six years.
The open savannahs of the Mkata floodplain, at the
heart of the park, are reminiscent of the famous Serengeti plains and a popular
feeding ground for herd animals such as elephants, giraffe, zebra and
wildebeest. But with far fewer vehicles and visitors, Mikumi offers a wilder
and more remote experience than the Serengeti and Ngorogoro Crater, Tanzania’s
better-known parks in the north of the country.
At more than 3,000sqkm, Mikumi is the fourth largest
national park in Tanzania. The area is adjacent to, and part of, the much
larger natural ecosystem of Selous,
one of Africa’s largest game reserves. Together, Selous and Mikumi create a
protected ecosystem larger than Denmark. But even with
the protected designation, animals remain vulnerable to the dangers posed by
Small animals often fall prey to the speeding traffic
on the highway, while larger animals face other risks. “[Poachers] get the
elephants when they roam outside the park,” said Simon Kimweri, a guide with It Started in Africa Tours, who has spent 17 years living
and working near the park. Pointing to a large bull elephant that has no tusks,
Kimweri said, “He was lucky. Often the poachers just kill them.”
The luxurious Stanley’s Kopje camp is named after one
of the world’s most famous explorers – the Welsh-born, American journalist and
adventurer, Henry Morton Stanley. One of a handful of accommodation options
within the park, the camp is made up of eight tented chalets on raised wooden
platforms, offering unobstructed views of the Mkata floodplain. From the bar
and restaurant area, herds of animals can be seen grazing in the distance. At
night, Oakes said elephants and other wild animals regularly feed among the
tents, eating the grass that grows along the rocky outcrop.
Closer to the park’s main gate is the Mikumi Wildlife Camp, a
series of basic cottages with thatched roofs that provide close-up views of the
animals visiting nearby watering holes. Rooms are pricey for what they offer,
but the quiet and peaceful terrace facing the open plain is the perfect place for
a post-safari drink.
accommodations can be found along the main road in Mikumi town, located about
20km from the main park gate. Several guesthouses and roadside motels – with questionable
names like Half Way House (Mikumi Main Road; 255-787-97-9678), Genesis Snake
Park and Motel (Mikumi Main Road; 255-023-262-0461) and Impala Palace (Mikumi
Main Road; 255-715-41-8266) – provide basic but clean lodgings for a fraction
of the cost of staying in the park. A selection of lively restaurants and pubs along
the main road offer a chance to catch up on football scores, chat with locals
and have a cold beer with some nyama
choma, the Swahili word for grilled meat.
If you are not on a package tour, you can arrange at
the park entrance to have a ranger join you on your game drive. They will know
where to find the animals and can save you from getting lost or driving
aimlessly around the numerous tracks within the park. Be sure to bring plenty
of water, snacks, a good pair of binoculars and a camera, as Mikumi is famous
among photographers for getting excellent light. Most animal activity takes
place when the sun is not at its peak, so aim for game drives in the early
morning or late afternoon.