Where to go
If you have the time, by far the most satisfying way of visiting West Africa is overland, traversing the yawning expanse of the Sahara, arriving in the dry northern reaches of the Sahel - these days most likely in Mauritania - to the ravishing shock of an alien culture, and then adapting to a new landscape, a new climate and new ways of behaving.
Choosing where to go is no easy task: the region offers so much and Africa repeatedly confounds all expectations and assumptions. In the main section of the guide, the individual country introductions give an idea of what to look forward to. However, at the risk of reinforcing stereotypes, it's possible to make a few generalizations about the feel of the countries. Of the eleven Francophone, ex-French colonies, the three nations most dominated by French culture and language are Cameroon, Senegal and C(tm)te d'Ivoire; these can also be the more expensive countries to travel in, and their relatively Westernized cities are inclined to be hustly. Senegal is an obvious choice as a base from which to launch travels: facilities are much better than in many parts of the region and the verdant Basse Casamance district has a remarkable network of village-based accommodation (but see the boxed warning, p.xiv). C(tm)te d'Ivoire provides a melange of the traditional and modern, African and French. Cameroon - which is English-speaking in the west - blends magnificent scenery and national parks with an extraordinary richness of culture, running the whole African gamut from "Pygmy" hunting camps to Arabic-speaking trading towns and taking in the colourful kingdoms of the western highlands.
Vast, land-locked Mali is blessed with the great inland delta of the Niger River and, again, striking cultural contrasts - the old Islamic cities of Gao, Timbuktu and Djenn (on, or near the river), and the traditionally non-Muslim Dogon country along the rocky cliff of the Bandiagara escarpment. Other Francophone countries include the narrow strips of Togo and Benin, the latter being especially easy-going and fairly undeveloped as far as tourism is concerned; the laid-back, former revolutionary republic of Burkina Faso; and the remote and dramatic expanses of Mauritania and Niger. Perhaps the most impressive of the pays francophones, however, is the republic of Guinea, with only a thin overlay of European culture and an extraordinary vitality released by the end of dictatorship.
Four of the West African countries are former British colonies, divided from each other by the speed of the French invasion in the nineteenth century. The Gambia is an easy place to set out from, a winter holiday destination that's small and personable enough to feel accessible for the least adventurous visitor. The distinctive personality of Ghana provides flamboyant cultural experiences and its splendid, palm-lined coast, dotted with old European forts, a handful of good wildlife sanctuaries and official encouragements to the tourist industry, make it one of West Africa's most promising countries to travel in. Sierra Leone, at one time hugely likeable, has always been a more demanding destination. It has some of the best beaches in the world - only minutes away from the raffish tumble of Freetown - but the devastating civil strife of recent years rules out any recommendation to visit for the present. Nigeria, despite its new, ostensibly democratic government, seems barely awake to its tourism potential. There are, however, big travel incentives inland - in the fine uplands of the plateau and the old cities of the north, to mention just two areas. It's a hard country to come to terms with, but once you're away from the slightly psychotic manifestation of Lagos, and the hubbub of one or two other big cities, there's no denying the overall ease and even tranquillity which accompany travels here. The same cannot be said for Liberia - a former vassal state of the USA, nominally independent since 1847 - which is struggling to make any recovery after a decade of civil conflict, confusion and economic breakdown.
The former Portuguese colonies are West Africa's least-known destinations. The Cape Verde Islands are immediately beguiling: volcanic outcrops and desert islands in the mid-Atlantic, with a scenery and lifestyle that make them hard to leave. Guinea-Bissau has its own island highlights - the Bijagos - luxuriant green forests in the warm, inshore sea, as different from the Cape Verdes as it's possible to imagine. At the time of writing, however - August 1999 - the army's mutiny, the widescale destruction of Bissau city and the installation of a new government, make it hard to predict travel conditions in the new millennium.
Guidelines for travel
The first recommendation in all this, is to give yourself time. It's tempting to try to cover as much of this fascinating region as possible. But the rewards become thinner the faster you go and, beyond a certain pace, the point of being there is lost in the pursuit of the next goal. While it may be hard to stop completely, or just to limit yourself to a small corner, that is precisely the way to get the most out of your trip - and, incidentally, also how to put the most in. In such a poor region, the idea of some kind of reciprocity is one worth keeping: everything comes back to you in the end. Patience and generosity always pay off; haste and intolerance tend to lead to disaster.
If you're travelling alone - and it's really the best way if you want to get to know West Africa rather than your travelling companion(s) - it may be useful to know about the main travellers' crossroads in the region, where you might team up for a while or swap experiences: Nouadhibou at the edge of the desert, Bamako or Mopti in Mali, Bobo-Dioulasso in Burkina Faso, Cotonou in Benin, and Busua or Accra on the Ghanaian coast.
More than ever, with so many countries undergoing tumultuous change, it's important to keep your ear to the ground before travelling on to the next country on your itinerary.