Having spent a sticky afternoon winding our way behind donkeys laden with luggage through rocky fields and green pastures, our small group of hikers reached the village of Mequat Mariam just as the sun started brushing the horizon. After clambering over pentagon-notched basalt rocks, we sat at the edge of a huge drop-off eating home-made pancakes, drinking sugary black tea and looking out over what one of the group described as "the Grand Canyon without the tourists". Great crinkled folds of rock stretched out ahead of us, with the sun setting pink behind them and a tributary of the Blue Nile snaking through the bottom of a deep gorge far below.
We weren't just here to admire the view. We were trying out a new range of village-to-village walking trips in Ethiopia organised by Village Ways. These take small groups to remote and relatively neglected regions of the country. The aim is to generate a new source of income for poor farming communities in a way that celebrates local culture rather than tramples over it. The cash that tourists bring in helps those communities to become more self-sufficient.
It may sound worthy, but for hikers simply looking for new paths to tread, the holidays also promise to open up landscapes that have so far been the preserve of only the most intrepid travellers. For a country so often associated with images of famine and desperate hardship, it is also a welcome attempt to make more of its real attributes.
Village Ways works with Tesfa, a local NGO that has been running similar trips in the area for several years. The partnership offers tailor-made itineraries incorporating as much or as little walking as you fancy. My group's trip was a condensed version of the options. It was split between two parts of the country: three days' hiking in the Meket region, north of Addis Ababa, and two days in Tigray, even further north. Here, Tesfa and Village Ways are building four hidemo sites (stone compounds in the local style). Along the way, we had excursions to some of Ethiopia's better-known attractions.
Our first stop was Gondar, a town in the north-west of Ethiopia that boasts an incongruous mix of art deco architecture (a legacy of the late 1930s, when it operated as an administrative centre for Italian East Africa) and more ancient sites. Arriving in hazy early-morning sunlight, we sped past acacia trees, laden-down market-goers and endless donkeys. Our goal was to see the 80 wide-eyed angels painted onto the ceiling of Debra Berhan Selassie church, as well as the Royal Enclosure, an extraordinary collection of palaces dating back to the 17th century.
Gondar was also the first of many places on our trip where we witnessed the intricate shoulder-shuffling Ethiopian dance, Eskesta. We ventured into a local bar to see it. When practised by the locals it looks fluid and elegant, but when attempted by a couple of brave members of our party, it looked more like disastrously bad "dad dancing". After an hour or so of good-natured teasing from the patrons about the dancing skills of us faranjis, we gave up and left it to the professionals: two bangle-earringed sisters, who shimmied away in white cotton dresses.
Next morning we set off on the six-hour drive to Filakit and the start of our first walk. As we passed giant volcanic plugs, oversized haystacks, pockets of forest and fields of sunburnt crops, dust swirled around the minibus. We were glad to pull up and strap on our walking boots.
That afternoon's trail led up past circular churches and fields so rock-strewn they appeared more stone than soil. After a few hours we reached Mequat Mariam and that dramatic panorama – visible not just from the cliff edge but also from the adjacent bucket shower, compost toilet and collection of simple tukul huts that comprised our accommodation for the night.
Tesfa's founder is Mark Chapman. That evening, over a few beers before dinner ("the more you drink, the more money the villagers make"), he explained the concept.
"The typical version of tourism in Ethiopia is that people fly between the main sites. Their money doesn't go to local communities and it doesn't give tourists a chance to discover the country properly. This seemed an ideal alternative. The Meket area is highly 'food insecure'. It is also close to the tourism honeypot of Lalibela, and the landscape is breathtaking. Throw in old Amhara culture, gelada baboons and lammergeier vultures and it offers a complete package."
It took a couple of years discussing the project before anything happened, though. "Some of the villagers were suspicious but we just kept explaining it. We brought some tourists in with tents in 2003, showing the villagers that they could earn an income and slowly it began to work."
So much so that, in 2004, even Brad Pitt paid a visit. Though the villagers weren't too impressed. "He was boring," one of them whispered. "He went to bed early." Up to 50 tourists a week now pass through Mequat Mariam in the high season, which runs from October to December.
Later that night, under a star-speckled sky, Tesfaye Asfow, the camp manager, told us how the villagers have earned enough to enable them to establish a grain store to fall back on during droughts. "We used to just do farming but now we have lots of plans. We'd like to get electricity, a road, a school, we could plant trees to sell..."
All of those things seemed a long way off the following day. Our walk took us along the edge of the escarpment, past ancient olive trees, scented eucalyptus groves and more remote villages. We crossed a prairie-like meadow, with butterflies swirling overhead, small boys shepherding sheep and men ploughing with oxen. Then we stopped for injera (huge, flannel-like pancakes topped with lentils, stew and vegetables), overlooking a tall but parched waterfall.
From here the path led up past wild thyme, vivid blue eucalyptus and baked orange walls to the highest point on the trail (3,000m) – and more dramatic views. If this all seemed idyllic to the visitor, we were given a reality check further on. We encountered two tiny girls hauling 20kg jerry cans of water up an incline. They told us that the nearest well was a 30-minute walk from their village.
At Wajela that evening we made the most of Ethiopia's Italian inflences. We tucked into spaghetti and chatted until late, fuelled by elaborately prepared coffee served in delicate espresso cups. Woken with cups of "bed tea" the next morning, we peered out of the door of our hut as iridescent blue-eared starlings and mocking cliffchats bobbed about on the doorstep and the sound of playing children and barking dogs drifted up from neighbouring villages. If the scenery wasn't quite as majestic as it had been at Mequat Mariam, Wajela had a disarming homeliness to it. There was no time to dawdle, though. From Wajela we walked on to stay at Aterow. Then we clambered down from the escarpment past purple-flowered hillsides, groups of haymakers and Metaya gorge.
Before we left the valley and our Meket walk behind, we came to a stop by a spoon-shaped swirl of rock with a waterfall at one end. Sitting quietly, we gazed across the gorge, letting our eyes adjust to the muted greys and greens and tried to spot what Mark had noticed ages before; a family of gelada baboons nonchalantly skulking along a terrifying precipice.
Next came a brief stop in Lalibela, one of the most popular destinations in Ethiopia, thanks to its collection of rock-hewn, 12th-century churches. With sunlight filtering in through stony windows on to intricate arches carved absurdly from the top down, it was easy to understand why Ethiopia holds a mystical appeal. The mix of familiar and exotic is everywhere and, in Alice in Wonderland-like Lalibela, it seems natural that the Julian calendar is used; that clocks are set from dawn rather than midnight; that St Francis is painted with leopards rather than birds; and that people claim that the country's imperial family is descended from the Queen of Sheba.
Our most otherworldly experience in Lalibela didn't happen around the churches, however, but in a large tent on the outskirts of the town. Invited to a local wedding, we watched while the bride and groom looked on severely, as tradition – or maybe tiredness – dictated, and we dutifully played our part by shuffling our shoulders to wild sora music. Stoked on cups of bitter, twiggy local beer we tried to forget the chuckling of Aterow's camp manager when he'd told us that watching faranjis dance – "their hips and arms going everywhere" – was one of the funniest things he'd seen.
Compared with this, our welcome in Tigray, 400km north, seemed completely normal. It involved being met by parties of colourfully dressed priests, riders on horses festooned with red pompoms, men with flags and rifles and women loudly ululating.
The Jurassic Park-style landscape around the project's Tigrayan sites was harsher than in Meket: a parched panorama of high red cliffs and giant cacti peppered with rock-hewn churches. The challenges are similar, though. At Shenbritty, Kidane Mewgebo, the community's women's representative, told us how money from the project will help. The community plans to exploit a spring so they need not walk so far to fetch water, and hopes to build a grain store, like Meket's.
"My dream is that Ethiopia will become known for this type of tourism," said Mark, as we reluctantly started the journey back to Addis Ababa. With experiences as inspiring as ours to offer, it has a chance.
Travel essentials: Ethiopia
* A six-night trip with Village Ways (01223 750049; villageways.com ) starts at £860 including transfers, internal flights, accommodation with all meals, and guiding, but not international flights.
* The writer flew from Heathrow via Amman to Addis Ababa with bmi (0844 848 4888; flybmi.com ); returns from £503.
* Ethiopian Airlines (020-8987 7000; ethiopianairlines.com ) flies non-stop from Heathrow to Addis Ababa.
Red tape and more information
* British passport holders need a visa to enter Ethiopia (£14 for a single-entry tourist visa). You can either get one in advance through the Embassy of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, 17 Princes Gate, London SW7 1PZ (020-7838 3897; ethioembassy.org.uk ), or simply buy one on arrival at Addis Ababa .
*Ethiopian tourist board: tourism ethiopia.orgReuse content