Once defined by images of famine, Ethiopia is now one of the most progressive nations in Africa, Sarah Marshall discovers.

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 think with a sigh, but on the final leg of a hike to Ethiopia's most inaccessible place of worship, barefoot is the only option.

A few hundred metres below me, glossy eucalyptus leaves flicker encouragingly like ticker tape, and sinewy fingers of stratified rock burst upwards, lifting me into the clouds.

Right now, though, nothing can allay my fear. 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.

Tigray is famous for its beautiful scenery and rock-hewn churches. Photo / iStock
Tigray is famous for its beautiful scenery and rock-hewn churches. Photo / iStock

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. It takes an elderly, muslin-cloaked priest 45 minutes to glide up here, making my sweaty, two-hour attempt look embarrassingly pathetic.

Once a great civilisation steeped in Biblical history (it's widely believed Moses' Ark of the Covenant resides in the city of Axum), this east African country stirs 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 which claims to "make you seven years younger" and knocks all time schedules out of synch (by operating on a different calendar and clock system) 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.

Limalimo Lodge is located on the edge of the Simien Mountains National Park. Photo / Limalimo Lodge, Facebook
Limalimo Lodge is located on the edge of the Simien Mountains National Park. Photo / Limalimo Lodge, Facebook

After flying into Gondar, it's a three-hour drive to perky town 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.

Until young Ethiopian owners Meles and Shif were granted a lease from the Africa Wildlife Foundation, this was common grazing land.

"When we started building, I went to the local church and invited anyone interested to come and work for us," says Shif, who has 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 (a mixture of compressed soil and wood) as an eco-friendly, heat-regulating 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, but come October, the earthy, undulating mass will be carpeted with grass and flowers.

Gelada monkeys in the Simien Mountains National Park in Northern Ethiopia. Photo / iStock
Gelada monkeys in the Simien Mountains National Park in Northern Ethiopia. Photo / iStock

Gelada monkeys tentatively perch on rocky plateaus below the lodge, but for a closer encounter with the highland endemic, we drive for several hours into the park, where troops are more habituated as a result of ongoing work by researchers.

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.

A caravan follows, and I'm soon surrounded by hundreds of noisy, chattering primates hungrily digging and munching on roots, an activity occupying most of their day.

With no time limits imposed or expensive permits required, this is one of the few places in the world where people can observe primate behaviour at close quarters.

During jealous interfamily scraps, confrontational males peel back lips to reveal dagger-sharp teeth, but for the most part, they barely bat a heavy eyelid at our presence.

The Simien Mountains are also home to the Ethiopian wolf, but I'm told sightings are far more common in the Bale Mountains, further south. A 10-hour drive from the capital city, Addis Ababa (aside from chartering a helicopter, road is currently the only access option), Bale Mountain Lodge is promoted as a sister property to Limalimo.

Similar in environmental outlook and accommodation offering, the one-year-old lodge in the lichen-draped Harenna Forest belongs to British couple Guy and Yvonne Levene.

We stagger our long journey by stopping close to Dinsho village, to spot endangered mountain nyala living in the juniper woodland. Their relentless topiary means most of the trees here now have an amusing basin haircut.

It's a further two-and-a-half-hour drive to the eight-room lodge, set in an eco-system where new scientific finds are regularly made. A plaque in the main lodge lists a recently discovered butterfly species named after the Levenes, and the elusive Abyssinian lion has also been snapped by camera traps set in the grounds.

Yet I'm stunned when Yvonne reveals numbers of the Ethiopian wolf may have dropped down to 80 following an outbreak of canine distemper in the park.

Driving to their known home range on the Sanetti Plateau, I struggle to find flashes of auburn fur amid giant lobelia plants and clumps of white everlasting flowers. It's true - the world's rarest canid could be edging closer to extinction in the wild.

Mountain nyala can be found grazing in the woodlands near Dinsho village. Photo / iStock
Mountain nyala can be found grazing in the woodlands near Dinsho village. Photo / iStock

For a magical hour, though, I do manage to track a family 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.

Long term, they hope villages will relocate, but given Bale Mountains' favourable cattle grazing conditions, that seems unlikely.

"This is one of the most iconic species, four times rarer than the gorillas," stresses Yvonne. "I'm not sure if anyone's listening, but I couldn't live with myself if I did nothing."

She's right. The situation is dire and demands attention.

There may be no churches on the stony, high-altitude Sanetti Plateau, but right now, everyone is turning to the heavens for help.