West Africa: everything under the sun, oh yes, and the voodoo

Ghana has much to offer, but if it's pygmies, lions, volcanoes or voodoo festivals you're after, then you should head for Togo, Benin or Cameroon.

Toga

Tiny Togo's landscape is incredibly varied and steeped in the culture of its many ethnic groups. Lome is the capital, although its narrow streets, crowded with people, chickens, goats and country produce, lend it a provincial feel. But don't miss the 56km of coastline, not just for the fine sandy beaches, but also for the tranquil palm villages nestling between peaceful lagoons and the serene Atlantic. Oh, yes, and the voodoo.

In Togoville, Aneho and Glidji, voodoo festivals, shrines and fetishes are intricately interwoven with Christianity to form a bizarre hybrid religion. Followers are relaxed, and often willing to talk about what goes on. It's here that'll you get closest in spirit to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

Togo has a reputation for some of the best cooking in West Africa, especially for its sublime sauces flavoured with an array of spices, including ginger, peppers, anis, garlic, basil and mustard. The variety is mouthwatering. The country has low rainfall, so a visit can be planned for any time of the year.

Benin

Benin is the Gulf of Guinea's least-known country. Its people - a mosaic of more than 60 ethnic groups - are disarmingly eager to discuss serious issues with outsiders. Thinly wooded savannah covers most of the country while a flat, sandy plain runs the length of the coast, broken only by a series of picturesque lakes and lagoons. The old towns, including Porto Novo, the crumbling official capital, and the old Brazilian quarters of Ouidah are well worth a visit. A gently sloping plateau spreads to the north, and it's here that you'll find one of West Africa's most diverse agricultural regions. Abomey, the capital of the old Dan-Homey empire, has royal palaces and museums.

In the north, the lush vegetation and sheer cliffs of the Atakora mountains form a ridge which rises impressively out of the plains. This region is home to the Somba, one of Benin's most intriguing groups. They live in relative isolation in fortress-like houses called Tatas-Somba, whose original purpose was to fend off slave raids. November to March is the best time to visit Benin, but when the Harmattan wind blows in December, nights can be quite cool.

Cameroon

Cameroon stretches from Lake Chad to the Atlantic, and because of its size, contains every kind of African vegetation, from virgin rain forest to towering, volcanic mountain ranges. Not only that, it has idyllic beaches, historic ruins and game parks too, providing something for everyone.

An hour's drive from the main city of Doula lie the black sand beaches of Limbe. But if the beach life is not for you, you could always tackle the still volcanically active Mount Cameroon for a challenging but feasible trek.

The West Province is relatively well equipped for visitors. Here you can visit traditional chiefdoms of the Bamoun Tikar, the beautiful grasslands and Foumban's craft market, with traders emanating from all over Africa. The vast eastern plateau is covered with huge tracts of hardwood forest that render some areas inpenetrable. A number of pygmy groups hunt and gather in the jungle, where armies of gorillas lurk.

Further north you come into grasslands and dusty bush country through which flows the upper tributaries of the Benoue river. Here, in the Benoue and Bouba Ndjida national parks, elephants, giraffes, lions, ostriches and rhinoes roam. Taking into account regional variations in climate, the ideal time to visit Cameroon is in December and January.

In all three countries, accommodation outside the capitals tends to be basic but bearable. You might find air-conditioning, television and phones hard to locate. Bush taxis (ranging from Peugeot 504s to mopeds) are the best way of getting around. You can also rent a car , but it's expensive.

Regional and domestic flights are reasonably priced, but surprisingly, not always the quickest and most reliable form of transport. The two largest airline companies are Air Afrique and Ghana Airways.

Numerous airlines fly to West Africa, including Air France, British Airways, Aeroflot and KLM. If you cannot get a discounted price direct, ask for the number of their consolidator agents.

Gareth Lloyd

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