A community tourism project in northern Wallo rewards visitors with a taste of the fascinating local culture.
Walking adventures in Ethiopia
As the road climbs away from Lalibela, even the steepest slopes have been sculpted into sickle-shaped fields. Not a stone is out of place in the retaining walls: testament to the hard work of generations of farmers who battle erosion and drought every day of their lives.
On top of the escarpment, 3,000 metres above sea level, we load our bags onto donkeys and set off on foot across this remarkable landscape. Our guide is Fantau, a whip-thin 20-something with a big smile and good English. Like so many Ethiopians, he has triumphed over adversity. After losing his parents at the age of 10, his sisters packed him off to Lalibela with a few birr in his pocket. He slept rough on the streets, worked as a shoeshine boy, and managed to graduate from high school. He dreamt of making good in Addis Ababa but could find no work. Destitute, he took a job on a sesame farm near the Sudanese border, but his hands were too soft to labour in the fields. The Zimbabwean manager, impressed by his quick mind, taught him bookkeeping and English.
"I owe everything to that man. He did not need to help me, yet he did so much," says Fantau, who returned to Lalibela two years ago and trained as a guide with Tesfa (Tourism in Ethiopia for Sustainable Future Alternatives).
Set up six years ago under the auspices of the charity Save the Children, Tesfa gives remote villages in northern Wollo the chance to earn much-needed cash by hosting tourists in their highland communities.
We set off along the flat trail in the thin, cool air, passing clusters of tukuls, traditional round stone thatched cottages. From every door a couple of tiny tots peer out at us. Older siblings scamper over the rock-strewn fields to shake our hands. They wear dusty, ragged hand-me-downs, much-patched and mended.
In the river bed, women are filling big pottery jars with muddy brown water. Their menfolk are threshing barley, driving a string of yoked bullocks, donkeys and mules around in a large circle.
I take photographs of a farmer tossing grain high in the air with a wooden pitchfork to separate the chaff. He stops work and offers me some barley beer in a rusty tin can. I manage a few mouthfuls without my lips touching the metal. Nobody else is brave enough to try it.
We reach our first night's accommodation in the late afternoon: three specially built tukuls set on the edge of a precipice. Each has two beds with thick mattresses and duvets to keep out the night-time cold. Separate mini-tukuls house the thunderbox toilet and a place to wash.
A trio of shy cooks welcomes us with slices of pizza and a dish of perfectly fried potato straws. The view is stupendous: rare stands of ancient juniper trees cling to the escarpment as it sweeps down to the valley floor. The sound of children's laughter drifts up on the thermals. In the distance, a craggy sandstone massif stretches away to the horizon, burnished a brilliant orange by the setting sun.
We dine on spicy vegetable soup, spaghetti with tomatoes and spinach, and popcorn served with proper coffee. Coffee-making has almost as much ceremonial status in Ethiopia as tea does in Japan. The beans are roasted over a brazier and then presented to each guest to comment on the always excellent aroma. After grinding with a pestle, the coffee is boiled up in a black clay jug and poured from high into tiny cups. A plug of grass holds back the grounds. There are always three rounds, each a little weaker.
I rise with the sun and walk around the village of Wajela. Children on their way to school rush up and compose themselves for photographs. Their heads are shaved except for a curly mop on top. They are bright-eyed and inquisitive - but there are so many of them. It must be a real stuggle to feed such large families out of this stony ground.
We breakfast on scrambled egg, thick toast and honey. "The cooks go to Lalibela to learn how to cook western dishes," says Fantau. "We realise that not everyone likes injera [the fermented pancake that is Ethiopia's national dish] and so we bake bread and get pasta from the market."
As I puff up a hill in the thin air, I see that the locals overtaking me have placed their long walking sticks across their shoulders, a forearm wrapped over each end. I try the pose with my walking pole and it makes such a difference. By opening up my chest like this I can get a lot more air into my lungs.
The landscape changes subtly. It could almost be Switzerland. Horses and cows graze in lush green meadows and the air is perfumed by thyme and oregano. We follow a river as it tumbles down through a black basalt rock garden before crashing over the side of a rock amphitheatre to the valley floor hundreds of metres below.
Our lunch tukul is nearby and has a bird's-eye view over a vast, crumpled landscape. Injera is on the menu today. It's made from a very fine cereal grain called tef that grows only in Ethiopia and is far more nutritious than wheat. The spongy grey rubber pancake scores zero for looks. The cooks dollop on chickpea goulash and spicy lentil stew and we use our hands to tear off a strip to pick up some sauce. Maybe we are just ravenously hungry but this injera tastes delicious, not as sour as the fermented version we have eaten in the towns.
For Bruk, our national guide from Addis, this is his first trek in the Wollo region and he's full of praise for Tesfa. "I just can't believe how well these simple people are looking after us, and how friendly they are," he says. "I now realise it's the people that make a great walk, not the gradient. In the Simien Mountains [Ethiopia's main trekking area] all you see is mist, baboons and giant lobelia."
As we walk on, a large group of children follow us screaming "ciao". The donkey handler shouts at them. They instantly transform themselves from mischievous mob into angelic choir and launch into folk song. A cheeky small boy acts out the song's fight scene with a stick. He is hilarious and we fall about laughing.
Our next lodge, Mequat Mariam, looks across a vast gorge of layered sandstone that makes America's Grand Canyon look puny in comparison. A troop of Gelada baboons is playing in the sun. They are beautiful creatures with dark expressive faces, almond-shaped eyes and long aristrocratic noses. As the adults grub around in the stubble, the youngsters knock each other about for our cameras.
Sitting on a sunny rock platform, the lodge manager is doing paperwork. "There is so much of it," he says. "Nearly 700 visitors have come through this year." Each community elects a lodge manager, Fantau explains, and if he's not honest or up to the job he's fired.
So many community tourism projects fall by the wayside after a promising start. Tesfa is different; each tourist pays US$50 (Dh184) a night - many also make a small donation - and villagers immediately see the benefits: a water pump here, a grain storage facility there. And when someone needs to go to hospital there's money to hire a vehicle to take them and to pay for the medicine.
Tesfa is the brainchild of Mark Chapman, a Briton who lives in Addis Ababa. "I originally thrashed the idea out with a friend in a cafe in Lalibela in 1999," says Mark, who remains the driving force behind the project. With donations from Irish Aid and the Ambassadors' Wives Club, among others, he raised enough to build the first tourist tukuls, train the villagers and rent an office.
"What makes Tesfa so special," Mark says, "is that it's run almost entirely by the villagers. They decide who gets paid what, how the money is spent, and how much is saved for disaster relief."
On our final evening, we persuade the cooks, the manager and the accountant to join us around the fire inside the dining tukul. Someone finds a plastic pail and drums a beat. The women sing harvest ballads in strong, pure voices and the men show off their shoulder shimmies, Ethiopia's national dance. Now it is we who are the shy ones. Nobody can remember the words to any decent song until we hit on the idea of singing Christmas carols. So here we are - a banker, a journalist, an actor and a yoga teacher - laughing and singing with our Ethiopian hosts. This is what travelling should be about.
Askal, the chef, tells me he's surprised that people from the land of cars are happy to stay in his simple village - and to walk for seven hours a day. "Not only that, but you pay us well," he says.
Brad Pitt has stayed at Mequat Mariam and his signature in the visitors' book is proudly shown to us. "Many thanks, much love," it reads.
On our final day we reach "the Road". It rears above us, a major highway being built by the Chinese. Clambering up on to it as lorries thunder past, I realise that this is the future. It will bring the modern world to north Wollo, but I am not sure it will make these farming communities any happier or more prosperous than they are with a little help from Tesfa.
The flight Return fares from Dubai to Addis Ababa on Emirates (www.emirates.com) cost from Dh2,065 including taxes. Return flights from Addis Ababa to Lalibela on Ethiopian Airlines (www.ethiopianairlines.com) cost from 5,667 birr (Dh1,268)
The stay Tesfa has nine community-run lodges around Lalibela in northern Wollo province. Four lodges started operating in the adjoining province of Tigray in August and more will be opened in future to create a walking trail between some of the most famous rock churches. You can book guided treks and lodge stays ranging from one to seven nights through Tesfa (www.community-tourism-ethiopia.com; 00 251 111 225 024) for $50 per person per day, including accommodation, all meals, guide and donkey transport. Village Ways (www.villageways.com; 00 44 1223 7500049), a UK-based tour operator, will tailor packages to Wollo and Tigray.
When to go The weather from October to March is warm, sunny and rain-free