Could a country once ripped apart by famine now be Africa’s most exciting holiday destination? Sarah Marshall visits Ethiopia.
Clinging like a limpet to the sheer sandstone rock face, I dig my toes into disconcertingly shallow foot holes. Hiking shoes would have been useful, I sigh, but on the final leg of a hike to Ethiopia’s most inaccessible place of worship, barefoot is the only option.
Tackling a six-metre vertical climb to reach the fifth century Abuna Yemata Guh, one of Tigray’s famous rock-hewn churches hidden in the Gheralta mountain range, really does require a leap of faith.
Like much of Ethiopia’s ancient past, mystery surrounds the origins of this holy cave, where exquisitely preserved frescoes of wide-eyed archangels emerge from the shadows.
Worshippers of all ages still make the difficult journey to celebrate mass, carrying babies, baskets of injera and even dead bodies on their backs.
Once a great civilization steeped in Biblical history (it’s widely believed Moses’ Ark of the Covenant resides in the city of Axum), this east African country stirs very different recent memories. During the 1980s, Bob Geldof’s Band Aid appeal broadcast images of poverty and famine to the world, and few would have considered coming here on holiday.
But all that is changing. The country is now one of the most progressive nations in Africa. New roads, facilities and – crucially – upmarket accommodation options, are opening doors for tourists.
Especially exciting is Limalimo Lodge, on the edge of the Simien Mountains National Park, which fully launches in September.
After flying into Gondar, it’s a three-hour drive to Debarq, where we pick up a guide at the park gates – a requirement for every visitor. Passing weatherworn women stooping under the weight of back-buckling eucalyptus bales, we follow a winding dirt road leading uphill to the low-lying 12-bedroom lodge.
Up until young Ethiopian owners Meles and Shif were granted a lease from the Africa Wildlife Foundation, this was common grazing land; part of the pair’s proposal for the new hotel was to involve local community wherever possible.
“When we started building, I went to the local church and invited anyone interested to come and work for us,” says Shif, who’s guided treks through the Simiens for 14 years.
His wife, Julia, who gave up her job as a publisher in England to come and work here, proudly explains most employees live within 5km of the lodge.
That night, I drift off to sleep in what must arguably be Africa’s most luxurious mud hut. Addis-based, Italian architect Mario Balducci chose rammed earth as an eco-friendly building material, adopting a technique employed hundreds of years ago to build Spain’s Alhambra fortress and the Great Wall of China.
Limalimo’s real selling point, though, is an unparalleled view of the Unesco-listed Simiens. Eroded pinnacles rise from a dry, dusty mist, like castle turrets in the sky.
Crouched in the long grass, we wait for sunlight to strike the cliffs and entice geladas from their night-time caves. Crowned with a glorious mane and distinctive pillar-box red breastplate, a statuesque male leads his family across the mountaintop to graze and play a short distance from our feet.
This is one of the few places in the world where people can observe primate behaviour at close quarters. The Simien Mountains are also home to the Ethiopian wolf, but are far more common in the Bale Mountains, further south. A 10-hour drive from capital city Addis Ababa, Bale Mountain Lodge is promoted as a sister property to Limalimo. The lodge in the lichen-draped Harenna Forest belongs to British couple Guy and Yvonne Levene.
For a magical hour, I do manage to track a family of wolves on foot, hiding behind rocks and crawling into gullies. Despite my efforts, the wily wolves always spot me and with a quick scan of the horizon, they swiftly move on.
The Levenes are campaigning to raise awareness of the fragile species’ plight, imploring Ethiopia’s government to administer vaccines to the park’s domestic dogs, responsible for transmitting disease.
“This is one of the most iconic species, four times rarer than the gorillas,” stresses Yvonne. There may be no churches nearby, but right now, everyone is praying for help.
Sarah Marshall was a guest of The Ultimate Travel Company 020 3051 8098, theultimatetravelcompany.co.uk) who offer a tailor-made 11-day trip to Limalimo, Bale Mountain Lodge and Gheralta Lodge (all inclusive) from £4,350pp. Includes international and domestic flights, private car and driver and private guided sightseeing throughout.