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 humans.

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.

Budget-friendly 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.