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Saturday, 26 July 2014

The Great Speewah Flood

Now let's see, I was going to tell you about working dogs on the Speewah, wasn't I? As I recall, I was going to explain how the dogs out there really need to be as versatile as a shearers' cook when the food runs out.

Which reminds me: Crooked Mick demonstrated that sort of versatility more than once, during the Great Speewah Flood, the one that lasted two years without a single break in the rain.

I think I've already told you about that: if I did, I would have explained how the flood was so bad that all the fish drowned, and afterwards they had to import new fish to stock all the waterways. Well whatever I said before, that's the way it really happened.

Anyhow, the rain got on everybody's nerves, especially the shearers. So being a rough bunch, they took it out on the cook, who was sensitive, as cooks go. In the end, what with the shearers not being able to shear, and the hard time they gave the cook, the cook went, all the way to one of the outer sheds, where there was a large barrel of dust, kept for emergencies like long floods.

Climbing up on a high beam, he weighted himself down with scrap iron, jumped into the barrel of dust, and drowned. The boss was so sorry he stopped keeping a dust barrel after that. He said it might give the place a bad name, even if it was a long-standing tradition.

Well as you know, Mick was a marvellous cook, so after the barrel of dust had been dumped into the water, the station boss came down to the shearers' quarters, and put the hard word on Mick to take over as cook. There was no way they could get a new cook in, he said, not while the flood was on, and Mick was the only man up to the task.

Mick agreed that he was the best choice, but he mentioned that he was getting quite a good classical education from The Professor while the rain was coming down, and he'd miss all that if he had to cook for the whole shed. He was happy just to sit there, soak up an education, and wait for the rain to end.

I should explain that Mick had left school early, but he could see that a bit of education could be really useful when you were digging post holes, and didn't have anybody else to consult about dangling participles and things. You never know when one of them will dangle into the hole you've just dug, if you don't know what to look for.

So in the end, the boss agreed to pay The Professor a bonus to sit in the cook house and talk to Mick while he was cooking, as well as pay whatever the boss had offered Mick, and we all ate very well for the next eighteen months. Well, within reason we ate very well, but there were a few worrying moments when the food ran short, once or twice.

As you might realise, with the rain keeping on and on, the water levels got higher, and Mick and The Professor had to climb up a gum tree and build a new cook house, in a low fork of the tree. Then, as the water level kept rising, they kept moving the cook house up the tree, higher and higher.

Now that would have been all right, except that the two of them used to go up, right to the top of the tree to collect firewood. If you think about it, they were moving the cook house up the tree, while the top of the tree was slowly being lowered, and in the end they had to build a combined boat and cook house, and sail off to a tree that still had its top branches, all the while keeping up a supply of tucker for everybody.

At the same time, the rest of us had built a whole range of barges and pontoons to hold the stock, most of the local wildlife, the sheds, and other farm gear. That was how the great Speewah Ironbark Forest became the Speewah Plain that you can find in the atlas today. And if you look in the middle of the Speewah back paddock, you may even see a small rise that's forever labelled "Mount Ararat".

We couldn't have done it, though, if Mick hadn't put in an hour a day felling the trees for us, because he was the only one able to dive to the base of a Speewah Ironbark and cut through it on one lungful of air. It was hard on the forest, but we saved the stock and the wildlife.

Then there was the problem of the food. Until the fish drowned, they were able to get some of those, and the dogs kept the sheep herded in the upper branches of the taller trees until the floats were made. Remind me to tell you about the dogs some time.

Luckily we managed to save two of the Speewah rabbits, and we were able to live on their progeny for about twelve months. We ate two a night, one for Mick and one for the rest of us, and those parent rabbits just kept on breeding at the same old rate, the whole of the flood time.

Anyhow, the real problem came when we ran out of salt. We tried to work out how to get some brought in, but we were completely cut off. Even Mick wouldn't have been able to paddle or swim back against the raging torrents that were running off the Speewah in all directions.

So Mick ended up getting into a hollow gum tree, finding his way down to ground level, and sinking a hole down to the sub-artesian water, deep under the ground. Then he collected this water by the bucket, and carried it back up to the surface, where we evaporated it over a small fire, so we could have salt with our food again.

Later, when the whales came, it was Crooked Mick who fitted special stabilisers to the cook house, in case a whale bumped into it during the night, and he caught the two smaller whales with a hand line.

Not that we ate the whales, of course, but he used the oil to power his stove when we ran out of firewood, as the last of the remaining trees disappeared below the surface, just before the rain stopped. It was touch and go, there, whether we'd have to start burning some of the boats and rafts, and people were beginning to look meaningfully at Greasy Smith, wondering how much oil they could get off of him.

Yes, well I know I was going to tell you about the dogs, but I have to go now, so maybe next time, if nobody interrupts me, I can tell you all about them. Make sure you remind me . . .

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Note: there is a whole book of these stories, which I am currently pitching to publishers, but they will probably appear in an e-book.

There will be quite a number of these on the blog, all with the tags Speewah and Crooked Mick.

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