Located far from Togo’s more densely populated coastal area, the country’s two northernmost regions of Kara and Savanes are true wildernesses. It is partly due to their remoteness that both can boast some of the country’s most significant cultural and natural treasures within their borders, making a visit to Togo’s far north a must for any avid explorer.
Travelling from south to north, Kara is the fourth of Togo’s five regions. Despite its distance from the state capital, Lomé, located on the coast, the eponymous regional capital, Kara, is the second most affluent city in the country, its relative prosperity benefitting the wider region. Nonetheless, 75% of the region’s population remains rurally based.
The landscape is topographically diverse, including large flat plains of grassy savannah, interspersed by hills and massifs such as the Défalé mountains where woodlands of palm, acacia, and baobab are found. The Kara River carves its way across the region, flowing from southeast to northwest, where it empties into the Oti River. Between them, the two rivers define much of Kara’s borders, the Kara delineating the region from Savane to its north, the Oti forming a natural border with Ghana to the west.
The region is home to what is without question one of Togo’s most important cultural sites, that of Koutammakou, otherwise known as the Land of the Batammariba people. This beautiful, fertile, and hilly area in Kara’s east is famed for its houses known as Takyiènta. Built of mud bricks and two stories high, their rounded turrets crowned with thatched cones, these dwellings resemble miniature castles. Livestock is traditionally kept on the ground floor, while the upper floors provide elevated open courtyards, sleeping areas, and grain stores. Togo currently has numerous sites on UNESCO’s Tentative List awaiting review, but presently only Koutammakou enjoys World Heritage status, attesting to its significance.
One such area awaiting UNESCO assessment is the ancient iron metallurgy sites of Bassar which encompasses 15 villages, where blacksmiths practised their craft from the 5th century BCE to the 20th century CE. These settlements mastered all aspects of steelmaking, from extracting iron ore to smelting and forging, as evidenced by mines, slag heaps, and the renowned cylindrical furnaces. The ceremonies and rituals which accompanied metallurgy, and which are continued to this day, have also been noted for their intangible heritage.
Closer to Kara City lies Sarakawa Park. One of Togo’s smallest protected areas at just 1,500 hectares, the park is nonetheless much-loved for its rugged, mountainous landscape, tucked-away villages, and healthy wildlife numbers, which includes hartebeest, Cape eland, zebra, ostrich, and buffalo, making for an excellent and easily accessible trip from the city itself.
Togo’s remotest region, Savane is located in the far north of the country, where much of the land is covered by vast plains of grassy savannah occasionally interrupted by verdant hills. Less than 15% of Savane’s 850,000 people are based in urban areas, and of these, most are found in the regional capital, Dapaong. As such, farming is the main livelihood for the majority of the population, made up largely of the Moba, Tchokossi and Gourmantché ethnic groups, and who continue to live in traditional rural villages of across the region.
It is precisely because of its isolation that the region was sought out for refuge by people fleeing the threat of slave raids further south between the 17th and 19th centuries. No place represents this fact better than the caves and granary stores of Nok, Mamproug, Kouba and Bagou. Built into crevices high up on the spectacular Boumbouaka cliff escarpment, these difficult-to-reach complexes include natural caves as well as hundreds of large cylindrical structures, each several metres high and made of clay and straw, where grain supplies could be safely held. Yet these locations were of immense religious importance for the local Batammariba people long before the 17th century, and remain so to this day. Both the sky god, Lenlétk, and the god of agriculture, Toussik, are worshipped here. Local chiefs also continue to be ceremonially invested on the escarpments. The sites are another on UNESCO’s Tentative List, noted for both their historical links to the slave trade and their spiritual significance.
Further south, partially straddling the border with Kara, is one of Togo’s largest wildlife reserves, the Oti-Kéran National Park. As the name suggests, the park started as two separate protected areas. Both were first afforded protection in the 1950s, and were modest in size. However, during the 1970s, while Togo was in the grip of authoritarian rule, the parks were dramatically enlarged to well over 3,500km², leading to their merger. In what is a devastating example of careless planning, this decision was taken without consultation with local communities, who were then forcibly removed from their ancestral lands.
By the 1990s, during a period of wider civil unrest, local communities took their frustrations out directly on the park, massacring wildlife and destroying natural habitat. These lamentable events led to the shrinking of the park’s boundaries, and in time, much improved conservation efforts. Today, Oti-Kéran is home to lion, hyena, elephant, antelope, hippo, and giraffe, as well as 274 species of birds. In reassuring signs of its recovery, the park received Ramsar sanctuary status in 2008 and became part of a UNESCO biosphere reserve in 2011. Yet, funds generated through responsible ecotourism will also be critical to securing the long-term future of this great wilderness.
For accommodation in Kara and Savanes, we use Hotel Saint-Brigitte and Hotel La Douceur.