If the Marne River is the ‘jewel in the crown’ of the Cambrai/Sedan districts, then the setting for this jewel must surely be the eastern slopes of the Mount Lofty Ranges. They are an outstanding feature if only by virtue of being so visible. Looking at them from the Cambrai to Sedan road, they rise some 300 metres and stretch from horizon to horizon – a bare and barren range of rolling skull-shaped hills apparently devoid of any other features. They are a stark contrast to the lush middle and western expanses of the ranges.
For the conservation-minded they stand as a monument to a nightmare! Once covered by a woodland of She-oak, Golden Wattle and other Acacias, your imagination has to extend in order to visualise them as they were before settlement. The predominant image of these hills lies in the ghosts of the past and one can sense the loss as you gaze at them. The complete extinction of a once confined and unique ecosystem is the reason these hills have such a despairing appearance. However, there is some charm embraced by these apparent bare slopes and, in themselves they embrace a resplendent realm not beautiful in the traditional sense of green and lush but a rugged, worn, haunting beauty.
To appreciate most of it we must approach and enter these hills and look more closely. Some of the native grass species still exist and cloak the slopes, along with odd pockets of the original trees. On occasions one finds delightful patches of Xanthorrhoea with their thick black stems, fine spiky grass-like leaves and, of course, the beautifully smooth hard stalks holding the head of flowers or seeds. River Red Gums line the larger creeks and gullies and on the rises there still remains the odd acre or two of mallee scrub.
In the steeper rugged gorges where grazing sheep have difficulty on the almost cliff-like faces we can, in the main, still see how it was. On scaling amongst the rocks into the thickets one has the chance of seeing birds associated with ground-cover of various shrubs. Or, on looking down there may be a flash of blue as a Kingfisher darts over the pools in the rocky creek. Euros and kangaroos are quite common and are to be found resting from the sun’s heat under rock ledges.
These hills, though appearing from the distance to be quite globular, are deceptively rugged, cut by savage gorges and steep gullies. Many of these have semi- permanent or permanent springs trickling with crystal water into pools, some of which, where terrain permits, are surrounded by swamp ground-covers, reeds and sedges, each with its own collection of frogs and other aquatic life, holding out despite the pollution from grazing stock and fertilisers.
Most of the gullies cut out onto the plain as tree-lined seasonal creeks or intermittent waterways. They are rough and rock-strewn and as one enters them the walker is tempted to go further and further in, with an almost irresistible compulsion just to see what lies around the next bend, what can be found as you go higher and deeper into the hills. An illusionary luring that is hard to resist. Despite more rocks and steep sides that duplicate themselves over and over again, one expects something startling to suddenly appear. But, except for the occasional gold mine shaft, or an oddly interesting rock outcrop, there is never much else that is significant to justify the urge to go on further. But go on you do.
When heavy rains fall, what appears as a docile little trickle suddenly heaves down as a roaring torrent, powerful enough to swallow and wash away even a large truck or tractor.
Evidence of these occasional vindictive torrents can be seen by the scars on the Red Gums, as logs carried by the raging water smash into them, gouging away great slabs of bark as they slam into the trees. When the water is gone, these scars can be seen well above head height leaving the evidence of the fearful current.
Alternatively, one could tackle the remorseful slopes. They are covered in clumps of tough native grass, littered with outcrops of rock and huge ‘moss boulders’, rolling in a deceptively steep and ever-rising climb. Just as you gasp your way to the top of one dome, slipping and tripping on loose stones and rocks hidden amongst the clumps of grass, there appears another rise and then another. The rolling skulls seem endless, yet from the plain below there appears only one round hill to ascend. Of course, there is eventually the last one and finally one is at the top.
From here the view is inspiring. Not breathtaking as in most mountain views, but as you look east one sees the immense featureless mallee scrub and farmland plain below, stretching away to infinity, flat and silent. In gazing at this immense plain you can see that the rest of the world is stretching away below you forever. The eye is caught by no distant feature, it stops nowhere on anything in particular and here, in your solitude, indeed infinity lies beneath you.
Despite what we have seen so far, there is something more outstanding. Ironically we must move away and view this range from some distance again. Not every day, but frequently enough to spoil us, as the sun goes down, the rolling hills turn to the most exquisite purple hue. The clouds blown in from the west are broken up by the barrier of the western side. As the sun continues to fall they turn to slashes of pink and burning orange, stretching up into the blue sky. And the twilight of the day is embraced in slowly fading colours.