Everyone talks about the crime and poverty, but this African country is one of the world's most exciting places to visit, says Alex Hannaford. He should know, he grew up there...

In the distance, the beach guide gives us the thumbs up and disappears, holding a wildly flapping chicken, behind a wooden shack. Forty-five minutes later, he's crouching over a makeshift barbecue, dusting the meat with hot African spices. To wash it down, we swig palm wine - the African equivalent of moonshine - it sounds glorious but tastes revolting.

Tarkwa Bay, with its whispering palms and golden sand, is almost exactly as I remember it from 1979. I spent my early childhood in Nigeria when Dad worked for a French bank in Lagos. For some time I'd wanted to bring my wife to see the place I'd called home.

The engine on our boat malfunctioned three times on the 25-minute ride to the beach. I laughed as I remembered a letter Mum had written to friends on our first trip here in 1976: "Halfway across the bay, one of the engines stopped in the speedboat and gushed loads of smoke." Time hadn't changed much.

In the 1970s, you were dropped off on the other side of the bay and had to walk across baking sand for what seemed like miles. My feet would be so hot that I'd have to cool them in a large stone trough of water. Despite some rubbish piled up at one end, Tarkwa is still a wonderful respite from the madness of nearby Lagos - the most populous city in Africa.

My wife, Courtney, and I started our trip in Abuja, which took over from Lagos as the capital in 1991. The lights along the 30km airport road were all out when we arrived. I asked our cab driver if there was a power outage. "No," he said. "These are part-time lights."

Dad would often bemoan the constant power failures in Nigeria. Nepa, the National Electrical Power Authority, was nothing short of disastrous. The locals said it stood for Never Enough Power Always. Last year it changed its name to the Power Holding Company of Nigeria, PHCN, which wags say stands for Problem Has Changed Name.

We headed to Katampe hill, one of the highest points in Abuja and said to be the geographical centre of Nigeria, for the best view of the city. It's also home to a radio station, and you have to sign in before going up.

"Why do you want to go up there?" an official asked.

"We want to have a look at the view," I explained.

"You want to make an inspection?" One of the problems in Nigeria is suspicion.

The next afternoon, a taxi drove us from Abuja to Jos in Plateau state. Jos is underwhelming considering the splendour of the drive leading up to the vast plateau on which it lies. The next day, on the way from Jos to the Yankari Game Reserve and Wikki Warm Springs, potentially Nigeria's biggest tourist attraction, our car's axle split and we had to flag down a minivan, or "bush taxi" to continue on our way.

The Nigerian government, recognising the potential of Yankari, is funding an ambitious redevelopment programme. Currently, baboons and warthog wander round the building site, but the warm springs - a natural water hole surrounded by lush trees - is wonderful. An official told us a pride of lions had blocked his path that morning, but it's doubtful. One travel guide says that, due to poaching and a cattle plague, "Yankari is largely empty".

Nothing could have prepared Courtney for the sheer madness of Lagos. It is one of the busiest, dirtiest, most dangerous, vibrant, colourful, incredible cities on earth. It sprawls from the mainland to several islands connected by bridges. The Third Mainland Bridge, one of the longest in the world at 10km, has a reputation for armed robbery at night but during the day its congestion (the "go slow") provides a perfect place for hawkers. One friend says you can leave your house naked in the morning and arrive at work washed, shaved, dressed, and smelling of aftershave, just by buying things from the vendors amid the traffic.

In the 1970s Mum and Dad would regularly take me to Badagry Beach. At the nearby tiny, one-roomed Slave Relics Museum, Courtney and I watched as a teenage boy showed us centuries-old shackles used to hold slaves before they were shipped out. Just one in five survived the journey.

On the way back from the beach we drove through five road blocks. At one we were pulled over by an immigration official who asked to look at our passports. "Have you been to the beach?" he said. "What have you bought me?"

"Some sandy shorts," I replied. They're after money, but humour usually does the trick.

If you can escape the crime, survive the "go slows" and the officiousness, and deal with poverty on an unimaginable scale, it's one of the most exciting, unpredictable places in the world.

Alex Hannaford travelled as a guest of British Airways (0870 850 9 850; ba.com). It offers return fares from London to Lagos from £470. He stayed at the Lekki Comfort Inn (00 234 1270 6385; email: waltsteinheimer@aol.com) on Victoria Island. Half-board from $85 (£60) per person.

The adventurous tourist's trail

1 Kano

Kano is in the Muslim north of Nigeria. Its old dye pits are still in use and still owned by local crafts guilds - they are said to be the oldest in Africa. The central mosque here was built in the 1950s and is one of the largest in the country. With permission, you can climb to the top of one of its towering minarets to gain a spectacular view of the city.

2 Yankari Game Reserve

Currently undergoing a facelift, Yankari Game Reserve (bauchi-state-nigeria.info/tourism/yankaripark.html), in Bauchi state, has long been one of the must-see places in Nigeria. There are (supposedly) lion, elephant, water buffalo, crocodiles, baboons and African deer, but numbers are dwindling.

3 Sherre Hills

Sherre Hills in Jos is a range of impressive rock formations. Surrounded by streams and beautiful green hills, this is a great place for walking and climbing. Take

a picnic.

4 Abuja

As we left for Abuja, driving out of Jos and off the plateau, the view was incredible. The most dramatic contrast in Nigeria is between the beauty of the lush green countryside and the desperate poverty of the people living in its mud huts and in the tin shacks in the cities.

5 Nigerian cuisine

Sit by the pool at the Transcorp Hilton Hotel (00 234 9 413 1811; hilton.com), the best hotel in Abuja, and tuck into some pepper soup with goat meat. A must-have dish, it's a heady concoction of ginger, tamarind, cumin and coriander. It's a Nigerian institution, but like Nigeria itself, it's not for the faint-hearted.

6 Zuma Rock

Known as the gateway to Abuja, Zuma Rock is 300m high, 1km long and is really impressive as it looms above the horizon.

7 Badagry

Badagry beach is a bit of a drive from Lagos but it's one of the best beaches in Nigeria. Beware though, the Bight of Benin is treacherous for swimming due to the current. Visit the Mobee Family Slave Relics Museum, a small but poignant reminder of Britain's bloody involvement in the slave trade. You can see lip irons, chains used to bind children, a hoop to secure two slaves together by their ankles, and a huge urn from which they would be forced to drink. The Mobees were slave dealers and it was Chief Sunbo Mobee - the son of a slave trader - who finally ended the trade out of Badagry.

8 Afrobeat

Today young Nigerians listen to a disappointing appropriation of American rap, but the 1970s were the country's glory days for music. Fela Kuti was the anti-establishment golden boy of the era and pioneered Afrobeat - a heady fusion of funk, jazz, and Yoruba music with vocals in pidgin English. Today Fela's legacy lives on in his son, Femi, who can be seen playing regularly at the open-air New Africa Shrine at Ikeja on the mainland.

9 Tarkwa

Boats can be chartered from the Tarzan Boat Club on Victoria Island in Lagos to any number of idyllic little beaches including Tarkwa and Ilashe and numerous others down the creek towards Badagry. Today, you're dropped off right at the beach on Tarkwa and locals swarm to meet you, offering everything from tours of the village and bottled water to food, shelter from the sun, and even marijuana. Check out the rusting remains of a railway track that leads down a palm-fringed spit jutting into the sea.

10 Lekki

Popular with expats at the weekend, Lekki market is a great place to buy traditional Nigerian arts and crafts on Victoria Island. Don't forget to haggle though - it's expected - and if you're persistent (the trick is to start walking away), then you can grab a bargain.