TOGO? "An Island in the South Pacific, of course." "A fraternity party." "Dorothy's dog in the 'Wizard of Oz'" "A rock group." "Egg McMuffin -- to-go."

Friends may know where you're coming from, but they don't always know where you're going.

Togo (pronounced TOE-go) -- in French-speaking West Africa -- is a long time coming into the orbit of the Western tourist. Venturers to this corner of the world know Senegal, Liberia and the Ivory Coast. Air Afrique profits by them as its new DC-10 flight alights each Saturday in Dakar, Monrovia and Abidjan, with connecting DC-8 service to Togo.

The weary-eyed tourist who leaves behind his steamy succession of crowded airports, flops down in a plane seat, as I did, next to a chanting Moslem and passes a bicycling man on the Abidjan runway is not only far from home. He's an hour's flight away from Togo, a diverse Africa-made-easy, against-the-grain Third World country whose greatest asset is its 3.6 million generous, receptive, affectionate people.

Shame on the thousands of French, German, Swiss and Belgian tourists for keeping Togo a secret so long.

Since mail from Togo to the United States takes four to six weeks, there's no reason to wait for a description. This long, cigar-shaped republic, the size of West Virginia with twice as many residents, combines wide, sloping beaches with massif and wooded savanna; the modern architecture of the Assembly House and National Museum in capital Lome (pronounced LOW-may) with the fortified earthen tata houses of the Tamberma; the breezy, humid coastal climes (70 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit) with the hot, dry temperatures of the plains (65 to more than 100); gourmet French cuisine with a diet based on spiced-up millet and yams; animists, Christians and Moslems with the ancient rites, festivals and dances of more than 40 ethnic groups; game reserves with market-day mazes that rival the variety of First Monday Trade Days in Canton, Texas, and the French language with Ewe, Twi and Hausa -- and a bargaining knowledge of English.

Comfort-seeking Americans can escape to one of Togo's 34 hotels, most of them modern, air-conditioned, very clean and government owned and subsidized. Prices are kept low to attract the tourist: from about $60 to $85 at first-class hotels like the Sarakawa and Fevrier in Lome, to about $15 to $30 at the modest Naboulgou near the Keran National Park. Taxis are plentiful and inexpensive throughout Togo.

This former German colony and later French trust gained its independence in April 1960. And due to the efforts of one president, Etienne Eyadema, the country has boosted since 1967 its tourist dollar (actually the Central African franc) and facilities. Not long ago, for example, some 300 physicians, including South Africians, specializing in tropical diseases, convened in Lome. A project is in the mill for a national airline to link Lome with the north country, especially since an airport will open this summer in Niamtougou. At present, the rail service only runs as far north as Blitta, less than halfway into the interior.

Boarded by the Bight of Benin (Gulf of Guinea) on the south, Ghana on the west, Upper Volta on the north and Benin (formerly Dahomey) on the east, Togo appears sunnier than most of its neighbors, less expensive and safer. Not only is one hotelier's comment, "Safe in Togo -- anyone, anywhere, anytime," true, but Togo is not bothered with the cholera and yellow fever prevalent in Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon and Liberia. (The country requires a yellow-fever inoculation, certified on an International Health Certificate.) However, malaria is endemic in Togo. Your doctor can prescribe recommended malaria prophylactic pills to be taken beginning two weeks before the trip and continuing each week until five weeks after returning home.

The ride from Lome airport to the beachfront Hotel Sarakawa is either by paved highway or by a bumpy, sandy shortcut across the lagoon dug three years ago to reclaim flooded land. Reconsider this route during the rainy season of early summer.

Immediate observations: Togo generally goes to bed early, but Lome stays up late, on the streets or in establishments like Abreuvoir, the "local watering hole." Everyone has something to sell from a sandy sidewalk table or from a "shop" atop his head. Lome's five high-rises appear taller than they are. Fast living involves the motorscooter, and no one has to tell the Togolese to wear helmets. Christmas lights stay strung year-round. Mothers nurse their babies in public. Other women wear bras as outerwear. if any top. And a woman's freedom in Togo carries over into her clout in the business world and politics; every little village has a women's union.

Sea grape and almond trees shade grassless yards. Children play in the dirt as lizards scramble. Housing projects come with tennis courts and pools. The correct spelling of place names is any map's or guidebook's guess. Still, it's a small world when "Staying Alive" is playing in the lobby of the two-year-old Hotel du 2 Fevrier, Lome's proud tower, or "Deep in the Heart of Texas" is coming over the radio.

The throbbing Grand Market, with its storehouse of fabrics, and the exotic Fetish Market, where animal heads and skins and carvings believed to have magical powers are sold, are fascinating. But another wonder of Lome, reputed to be the only capital in the world on a border, is its boundary. A few sticks, once resembling a fence, separate the city from neighboring Ghana. In places where there is no fence, Boundary Street draws the line. The beachside border, somewhere in the sea of vendors, is open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Across town, the Port of Lome, accented in tall coconut palms and cashew farms, is a freeport to the landlocked nations above Togo. Here, phosphates exit while oil enters from Nigeria.

The paved beach road running from Ghana, 34 miles across the width of Togo's south to Benin, separates makeshift frond, bark and sod homes from the migrant fisherman residents busy at the shoreline. With strain of muscle and cadence of "ahh-pull-ee-man," scores of men and boys haul in nets of plenty, the fish to be sold wholesale to the waiting merchant women and the profits to be divided. A portion of the catch will be held for the landowner, whose only deposit was alcohol.

A swimmer off the coast of Togo should have better sense -- and a visa for Nigeria. The current and undertow are treacherous.

The memorable traveling in Togo runs 400 miles north and south, across east-west ethnic lines. From the resort Hotel de Lac at Agbodrafo, we set out across narrow Lake Togo to another life. A guided pirogue seats six (at about 65 cents a person) for the 15-minute ride to Togoville, a primitive -- even by Togolese standards -- village of 5,000. The ceremonial forests nearby resound in the fall with the Festival of Couscous, named for the crushed grain steamed and eaten as a cereal, often served with lamb or chicken as a main dish or with nuts and fruit as a dessert.

The beaching at Togoville is a flashback to the Marlon Brando character's base in "Apocalypse Now." From the palm-braided beach, rainy-season tides have etched out the steep, narrow streets leading to the village by the bluff. Wading from pirogue to shore is unwise. This isn't the land of 1,100 springs. Either step from boat to boat or have the driver carry you.

The smiles of playing children illuminate the concrete path milling with old people and lame youths. In the adjacent sod and block dwellings live millers, fishermen and farmers.

Slaves were once exchanged here for tobacco, sugar and salt. Modern Togo was born in 1884, when King Mlapa inked a treaty giving Germany dominance over the region. A plaque and cannon in the upper village commemorate the event. The Germans named the country after the village. Though Togoville's heritage is in the Ewe people and its traditions conserved in animism, a Catholic school and church dominate the squares.

A private flight to Niamtougou begins our journey through the north lands, from a base just south at the Hotel Kara in Lama-Kara, the pulse of the Kabye region. The village of 20,000 is commercialized with trading, Moslem shops, banks and industry. But two nightclubs recently closed down because, outside Lome, the young Togolese simply don't go out on week nights. b

Our van passes women on hot, hilly, half-day walks from town to town, carrying bushels of cane or steel drums on their heads. The "peasants of the stone" grow yams, millet, sorghum, cotton, shea-butter trees, kapok, peanuts, cocoa and coffee. They're found bathing upstream in the Kara and washing clothes down river. Soukala, arrangements of small, round, conical-roofed huts interconnected by low walls, break up the landscapes of massif, hills and plains dotted by scrubby bush, occasional desert palms and rocks. A tin roof is a status symbol here.

With the low humidity and the hazy hamattan, the dry, dusty, (they say cool) wind that blows from the Saraha toward the Atlantic evokes the stereo-type of the dark continent Africa.

Near Pya, the president's hometown, is the turnoff to Sara-Kawa, an infamous site since 1974, when the president's DC-3 crashed and he miraculously escaped unharmed. A monument encases the wreckage.

Before lunch, Hermann Imlinger, manager of Hotel Kara, offers some just-concocted tchukutu, the local beer fermented with natural yeast and good for two days maximum. Before sipping the 8-percent alcohol that tastes like apricots, pour some on the floor for the old gods and ancestors. It is prepared from millet grown the previous season: "Put in water to germinate, take out of water to grind it, again in water, boil it, keep it quiet, boil it again, then let it ferment." Usually prepare for the market, tchukutu is sold on the street by the calabash bowl.

Though slacks are all but foreign to the women of Togo, Westerners are forgiven if they wear jeans, hats and comfortable shoes for the journey northward to the Keran National Park. Bottled water purchased at the hotel is a necessity. Even steaming, it "goes down good" later.

The van swerves to miss a wild pig or goats playing in the road. Children and cattle, at the well or under huge mango trees, become thinner as the vegetation becomes sparse in this parched region. A detour northeast at Kante onto a dirt road begins a tour of the Tamberma region near the Benin border. The "good masons" of the area erect their clay and wood compounds to blend with the surroundings. a thick wall, with a single opening to the outside, connects the series of towers set in a circle. Bedrooms on the level above the livestock are no bigger than two bodies, and our guide finds the back entrance a tight squeeze.

Even with an average eight to 10 children per household of three generations, the families manage three meals a day. Grandmother wears a bone through the skin below her bottom hip, and the 30-year-old man of the house looks 40, the average life expectancy in West Africa. Whispers of "cadeau, madam, cadeau," follow outstretched hands, the children pleading for gifts more with their eyes than with their voices.

Our late-afternoon arrival at the Keran park seems uneventful until a water buffalo, dangerous when alone, appears to our right. The one-tusk elephant up the road doesn't scare us until he trumpets and we glimpse the look of fear on our guide's face. Even at dusk in the dry season -- when the sky turns dirt orange, then red, then lavender -- we spot monkeys, baboons, wild pigs, antelope and another elephant feeding at the river bank.

The arrival of the rainy season transforms the 269,932-acre park (133,434 acres of reserve) almost overnight into lush, green forests and grasslands, though impassable and therefore closed in May and June. The reserve is open daily and the best time for hunters (cameras only) are 6 a.m. and 3 p.m.

After a morning with the chief and a performance of tribal dances at Bassar, we maneuver through an afternoon at the Sokode market, past tables of stacked smoked fish, mashed yams, incense, very ripe fruit, peanut and palm-nut oils, calabash, pumpkins seeds, roan and fabric, and around people asleep in the aisles and under booths. We even found a lion-killer lemonade at Au Paradis. The Moslem Kotokoli people dominate Togo's second largest city; the men don boubous (robes), distinctive headgear and umbrellas, and the women wear their usually colorful pagnes. Some of the women still wear veils.

Our most fulfilling side trip in Togo unfolded at the one-year-old Hotel Fazao ($35 and $40 per night), intentionally built at the end of a dirt road 14 miles west of the principal north-south highway. A tourist is drawn to the bush -- with all the creature comforts of home. the clay-color block buildings blend with the nearby village and the hilly terrain. Dense forests and small mountains shelter a new game reserve with nine miles of paved roads (soon to be 45). Hotelier Raymond Noble alone makes the stay worth the drive with his ever-changing menu; a five-course steal of a meal costs about $11.

Most tourists come to Fazao as part of a tour, and Noble is organizing an overnight adventure to a campsite he has erected at Cascade Boulo. He enjoys the company of his guests. With no phones, Noble and family are in radio contact with the Hotel Sarakawa in Lome only twice a day.

Hunters from the village "invade" the hotel patio at night to perform Kivaron and Kagbanga folkloric dances as they convincingly feign with knives self-inflicted cuts, fights and death. And for no charge, Marmalade, Noble's pata monkey, dances for attention.

We pay an early-morning visit to Agble, a tiny village of 100 people another mile past Fazao. Though we trudge into their yards and dwellings unannounced, laughing childred hold out their hands. There's no begging; they saw us coming and rushed to put a contribution box on the big tree. They show us through the narrow courtyards where mothers are feeding and bathing their babies and are preparing meals in steaming pots. Patriarchs too old to work the fields or hunt, stoop in doorways for light by which to weave their straw.

On the return to Lome, we observe waterfalls along the hillside. We lunch near Kpalime at Campement, and in town, at the Artisanal Center, we shop for batik, macrame, ceramics, and ebony and teak carvings. At Assahoun's fabric center, a boy "breathes" fire to extract palm wine, distilled into sodabi.

Togo is a tiny slice of Africa -- but a good taste.