Not even my mother would have washed that T-shirt. For the better part of a week it had clung to my torso like the smell of chips to a cashmere sweater; it had crossed three frontiers, travelled the Sahara desert and finally come to rest in a lifeless lump at the bottom of a five- star rubbish bin in a Senegalese hotel room.

I hadn't expected to be there when the room was cleaned and the T-shirt spirited away. Now I would have to smile my way out of embarrassmen`.

As if sporting an invisible clothes peg on his nose, Tidiane Bathily, housekeeper extraordinaire at Le Meridien, Dakar, made straight for the bin. It was empty, save the insalubrious garment. He grabbed the discarded T-shirt and grinned, as if he had picked up a teddy bear in a lucky dip.

It was a genuine Paris-Dakar rally T-shirt. Gold dust. The key to bars and sleaze in a city where, every year, a band of filthy Europeans emerges from three weeks in the Sahara after the world's most dangerous rally. I winced. 'For me?' he asked.

Sixteen years ago, Thierry Sabine, a pleasantly lunatic Frenchman with a passion for Africa, conjured up the idea of a motorised trek to Dakar, capital of Senegal and the New York of West Africa. It was a way of escaping the bleak midwinter of his native Le Touquet.

When Sabine first led the trail to Dakar, he was followed by a motley selection of old Renault 4s and farmers' Range Rovers, their drivers more interested in sun on the beach than outright competition. Sabine was killed in the event in 1986 but today his dream has become a mobile mirage to blow the mind - an army of 2,000 racers and mechanics.

This January the rally started and finished in Paris. It merely made a pit stop in Dakar, providing the teams with 24 hours of rest and rip-off in a city where taxi drivers come from the Nigel Mansell school of driving and street hawkers' tactics turn hairy-chested rally drivers into whimpering wrecks. Such is the city's reputation that some of the most macho adventurers unnecessarily confine themselves to hotel compounds on the Cap Vert peninsula, Africa's most westerly tip.

Instead they could be bounced for 20 minutes on the bare springs of a taxi like Abdul Diof's - a Renault 4 of sufficient wear to make you wonder if it too had done the 'Dakar' - to the far end of the rutted corniche that terminates in another world.

Here, smoke from gutter-grilled poisson is picked up by the brisk Atlantic air and you are more likely to be knocked over the head by a stray football than a brick on the wide tree-lined boulevards.

Abdul decided it was his duty, for 60,000 CFA francs ( pounds 20), to be my personal guide to Dakar. 'You want to shop, eat, see the grand mosque?' he asked. But no one needs a tour of the city. On the road into town from the hotel district you see life unravel before you. Elegant Senegalese jog along the coast while traditional fishing canoes are dragged up the sand. Walls of people cheer wildly around a lutte (wrestling match). And in a club that looks more Streatham than Senegal, Africa's greatest rock star plays music for pennies while earning his pounds abroad.

Youssou N'Dour is to African music and rhythm what Roger Milla is to African football and corner posts. Tidiane Bathily is N'Dour's next-door neighbour, so I offered him the telephone. It was like the bus boy at the Regent Beverly Hills calling Michael Jackson. They talked in Wolof, the language of Senegal's elite. I wanted to meet Youssou, to talk music and anything but cars and deserts. Tidiane fixed it. 'Tonight, nine o'clock.' The housekeeper to the smelly and friend to the stars smiled.

YOUSSOU N'Dour might be the only reason many people in Europe and America have heard of Senegal, but dotted across the West are thousands with roots in the country. Their ancestors may have been slaves but they are now the envy of most young Senegalese.

David Queeley, a 35-year-old New Yorker, has little idea where his ancestors originated, but his willowy frame and facial features are distinctive. 'Last year a friend of mine visited Ile de Goree, the old slave island in Senegal,' Queeley told me. 'He said that many of the Senegalese had similar features to me.' Coincidentally, Queeley came to work in Senegal.

Two miles beyond Dakar, in the icy white-capped waters of the Atlantic, Ile de Goree breaks the surface of the ocean like a barnacle- encrusted whale. One blood-red building places Goree in the goriest chapters of history books: La Maison des Esclaves, slave house and holding pen for thousands of West Africans on the one-way journey to the New World.

Once on Goree, Africa ceased to exist for the slaves. The only boats leaving the island in the 18th century were bound for America, their slave cargo chained together in their hundreds.

In the dark, dank dungeon of the stone-walled gaol, many slaves died. 'We smell, from our bedrooms, the stench of the corpses of the captives who die in the dungeons,' wrote a French soldier stationed on the island.

In the same dungeons, 200 years on, Queeley stood with a group of visitors from Europe, Africa and America. He froze, only his eyes moving, taking in what might have happened to his ancestors.

Running between two dungeons was a narrow corridor, black at midday save for a shaft of aqua-blue light streaming in from a doorway, the entrance to what was known as 'the journey of no return'. Queeley and the rest of the group said nothing, not even at the sight that brings hundreds of black Americans to Senegal every year.

'I didn't break down and cry,' Queeley said after leaving the slave house. 'I felt the ghosts of people in there: it was powerful to see how people were treated. I just had to sit and think, looking out of that doorway. It is hard to believe that my family might have gone through that door of no return.

'Senegal has lived up to expectations,' he told me. 'It is fascinating. The sense of community is to be envied, but people still look up to the United States, which is ironic, considering the past.'

MBACKE, Youssou N'Dour's minder, was sent round to pick me up from the hotel in a BMW. Six foot four, dressed in black and looking like a saxophonist from a Chicago jazz group, he whisked me out of the peeling grandeur of the Meridien and into the darkened underworld of the Dakar music-club scene.

Youssou N'Dour was eating and balancing a telephone against one ear. His television blared French from a corner. Freeing one hand N'Dour shook mine, and went back to the call. His wife offered me the beef stew that everyone was eating.

'I am sorry everything is so rushed,' N'Dour apologised. 'I am playing tonight at my club. I've got to go soon.' Then, as if trying to define existentialism in a minute, his conversation bounced around the world of music and its shortfalls as fast as Magnus Magnusson can pose questions.

The magician of mbalax music promised a surprise if I turned up for his jamming session in the small hours. 'Tonight I have got a special friend coming to play with me,' he said. Mbacke whispered a clue: 'Gabriel.'

Yes, Peter Gabriel. The rock veteran and patron of world music has a house in Dakar. It is part of his love affair with the continent, part of the inspiration for his music. He was at N'Dour's club that night.

Midnight had passed long ago. In three hours the rally would leave Dakar en route for Paris. Bed would have been sensible, but bed is no place to soak up mbalax music and N'Dour's Thiosanne Club is no place to sleep. Finding Peter Gabriel was not a problem. There were only two white guys in the club and I was one of them. 'I was in the neighbourhood,' the goatee-bearded musician shouted as Youssou played. 'I've known Youssou for years and played with him a lot.

'You here with the rally?' he asked. I nodded.

'Boy, is that still going? I'd love to do that one year, but you'd have to be crazy,' Gabriel shouted, before disappearing towards the stage. 'I might play tonight . . .' His words were lost to the beat.

GETTING THERE: There are no direct flights to Dakar from London. Air France, Swissair and Sabena have connecting flights through Paris, Geneva/Zurich and Brussels respectively. Trailfinders (071-938 3366) offers those flights at the following prices: Air France from pounds 440 return ( pounds 532 after 1 July), Swissair from pounds 528, Sabena from pounds 506 ( pounds 638 after 25 June).

Accommodation: The most upmarket hotel in Dakar is Le Meridien President, near the airport (a 25-minute, pounds 7 taxi ride from the city centre): a room costs from pounds 70. The best bet downtown is the Novotel, from pounds 42 per room.

Getting around: Dakar's taxi drivers are notorious for their ability to rip-off tourists, so check in advance with your hotel how much a ride should cost. The ferry to Goree leaves almost hourly from the wharf in Dakar; the trip takes 20 minutes and costs pounds 7 return.

(Photographs and map omitted)