Adventurer and author, Tom Coote, nominates the places you must visit in Africa's most exciting and vibrant region
In the days when the Gulf of Benin was known as 'The Slave Coast', the port of Ouidah was home to one of the most notorious slave markets in West Africa. It was also – and still is – known as 'the cradle of voodoo'. Standing face to face, the imposing Catholic Basilica and the Voodoo Python Temple compete for hearts and souls.
Further on from the Portuguese Fort (now the Ouidah Museum of History) stands The Tree of Forgetting, which slaves would once walk around – nine times for men, and seven for women – to erase forever the slave's culture, identity and real names. Closer to the shore, the shackled would stumble around another tree three times, to ensure that their souls would remember their identity and return after death. Along Ouidah's long, sandy beach – where once the slaves would be taken from Africa forever – now stands the monumental 'Gate of No Return'.
Both Cape Coast Castle and St George's Fort in Elmina are now UNESCO World Heritage sites. Only a few miles apart, and easily accessible by public transport, both of these large European forts changed hands several times over their history. Originally developed as Gold Coast trading posts, they later became notorious for their key role in the international slave trade.
Huge numbers of those captured would die in the disease-ridden dungeons before the slave ships even arrived but it wasn't just the enslaved that were dropping like flies. While the dead Africans were simply thrown out over the castles walls, into the sea, the European traders and soldiers were steadily filling up new cemeteries all along the Gold Coast. Indeed, the term 'White Man's Grave' was first used to describe Sierra Leone, which in 1807 had become Britain's first West African colony, but would soon become associated with the appallingly high death rates of Europeans all along the West African coast.
Close to the Burkina Faso border and a short bush taxi ride from Bolgatanga (also the main staging post for trips to West Africa's best known game reserve, Molé National Park) Paga is home to sacred crocodiles – each of which represents the soul of one of the people of Kassena. The Paga Crocodiles seem happy enough to make visitor's acquaintance, and even allow them to sit on their backs, provided that an appropriate sacrifice is made. This offering takes the form of a terrified guinea fowl, attached to a string on a stick by a small boy, and then lowered, flapping, into the beast's gaping jaws.
I was told that local youngsters would sometimes ride these sacred crocodiles across the lake. Apparently it is best to avoid the bigger crocodile in the middle of the lake as these ones aren't always so friendly.
Along with Timbuktu, Djenné grew prosperous between the 14th and 17th centuries as an important base along the trans-Saharan trade routes. The merchants grew rich and powerful on the lively trade in gold, salt and slaves, and both towns became centres of Islamic scholarship.
Djenné's Great Mosque is generally considered to the finest example of Sudanese-style architecture in what is unquestionably the most beautiful town in the Sahel. It looks like something that was not only made in another time, but in another dimension. In reality, the current mosque only dates back to 1907 and its adobe walls have to be repaired every year in an annual festival; small boys are generally given up the job of mixing up the mud, straw, husks, clay and animal shit, in the pits to the side of the mosque, while the young men clamber up the protruding palm poles, to smear it over the cracks.
To many travellers, the otherworldly land of the Dogon is undoubtedly the greatest attraction in all of West Africa. Something like 300,000 of the Dogon live in around 700 villages dotted along a 125-mile stretch of the Bandiagara escarpment (huge sandstone cliffs that can rise up to about 600 metres above the villages, providing protection from the harsh sun and any potential invaders, as well as a spectacular setting).
Dogon villages are frequently divided into twin parts, signifying the original twin ancestors, and often further divided into quarters for Muslims and Christians (although they're all really animists). They are also theoretically laid out to represent different parts of the body, with the elders meeting place, or forge, being at the head; the heads of the guinna (extended family) in the chest; the houses for menstruating women in the hands; and the sacrificial altars at the feet (although I'm not entirely sure in which part of this body, the numerous handicraft and gift shops to be found in some of the more heavily touristed villages, are meant to be located).