I can vaguely remember hearing people refer to The Speewah when I was a lad, but you don’t often hear it mentioned these days. But since it’s a part of Outback mythology, it deserves to be revived.
The Speewah was a mythical Outback property of vast proportions, where everything – the people, the weather, the wildlife, the mustering and shearing feats – was larger than life. Many an Outback yarn featured The Speewah, and sometimes Crooked Mick, one of its most fabled workers, or Big Bill “who built the barbed-wire fence”, or Slab-face Joe. These stories were often set in the period from a bit before the great shearers’ strike of 1891 through to the 1920s.
The location of The Speewah is hard to pin down. Workers on the Darling said it was back o’ Bourke, but in Bourke they’d tell you “out west”. When you got out west, they’d point to Queensland, and in Queensland, they’d tell you it was in the Kimberleys. Some would just say “west of the sunset”.
Many a claim to some extreme conditions or achievement would be met with something like:
• “Call that mud? You shoulda seen it up on the Speewah …”
• “Yeah, but on the Speewah, if you were told to ride down and shut the main gate, you had to take a week’s rations.”
• “Crooked Mick’s feet were so big, he had to go outside to turn around.”
• “The dust storms were so thick on the Speewah that the rabbits dug burrows in them.”
• “Up on the Speewah, when the cook was frying up bacon and eggs for the men, he needed a motorbike to get around the frying pan.”
When Crooked Mick was a boy, he started growing so fast that his father tried to slow his growth by ring-barking his legs. It didn’t work, but it did give him a nasty limp – and the name “Crooked Mick”. In his working life, he seemed to exceed the norm in just about every way possible. He shore sheep at such a rate that his shears ran hot, and so he kept half a dozen pairs in a water pot to cool. He was a heavy smoker, and it kept one rouseabout busy just cutting tobacco and filling Mick’s pipe. He ate two sheep for each meal – that is, if they were small Merinos – but only one and a half if they were crossbred wethers. He was also a champion fencer, and when digging post holes used a crowbar in one hand and a shovel in the other. It’s been said that he used Uluru to stone the crows (although this may be an exaggeration).
There are a couple of places in Australia today called “Speewah” or “Speewa”, but these are thought to have been named after the original legendary Speewah.
Here are some suggestions for further reading about the Speewah and Crooked Mick:
• The Great Speewah Flood: http://members.ozemail.com.au/~macinnis/speflood.htm
• Crooked Mick Builds a Railway: http://members.ozemail.com.au/~macinnis/mickrail.htm
• Bulls of Speewah: http://users.tpg.com.au/dandsc/op/op29.htm
• The Speewah Picnics: http://www.poetrylibrary.edu.au/poets/campbell-david/the-speewah-picnics-0544022
• A True Tale of the Speewah: http://archiearchive.wordpress.com/2006/07/15/the-speewah/