‘(as) fit as a mallee bull’: meaning and origin

The Australian-English phrase (as) fit as a mallee bull means very fit and well, in robust health.

This is the definition of the word mallee, from Austral English: A dictionary of Australasian words, phrases and usages, with those Aboriginal-Australian and Maori words which have become incorporated in the language and the commoner scientific words that have had their origin in Australasia (London: Macmillan and Co. Limited, 1898), by Edward Ellis Morris (1843-1901 or 1902):

Mallee, n. and adj. an aboriginal word. Any one of several scrubby species of Eucalyptus in the desert parts of South Australia and Victoria, especially Eucalyptus dumosa, Cunn., and E. oleosa, F. v. M., N.O. Myrtaceæ. They are also called Mallee Gums. Accent on the first syllable. The word is much used as an adjective to denote the district in which the shrub grows, the “Mallee District,” and this in late times is generally shortened into The Mallee. Compare “The Lakes” for the Lake-district of Cumberland. It then becomes used as an epithet of Railways, Boards, Farmers, or any matters connected with that district.

The phrase (as) fit as a mallee bull was explained in a glossary at the end of How Does Your Garden Grow (Sydney: Currency Press, 1974), by the Australian playwright James Thomas McNeil (1935-1982):

Mallee, any one of several scrubby species of eucalyptus; by extension, the uninviting regions in which such vegetation predominates. A mallee bull is thus a beast toughened by spartan living conditions.

The phrase occurs in the play itself:

MICK: Ha! (Posing) Fit as a mallee bull!

These are the earliest occurrences of the phrase (as) fit as a mallee bull that I have found, in chronological order:

1-: From Morning Glory, a short story by the English-born Australian novelist and short-story writer John Gordon Morrison (1904-1998), first published in Overland (Melbourne, Victoria) of April 1960, and republished in the collection of short stories Twenty-Three: Stories (Sydney: Australasian Book Society, 1962):

“All right. How’s dad?”
“All right. How’s Bubby?”
“Fit as a Mallee bull! Got another tooth—”

2-: From the column Data, by Gavin Souter, published in The Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney, New South Wales) of Friday 9th September 1966:

“Chris” Christensen is 71 years of age and, to quote one of his friends, “as fit as a Mallee bull.” He is chairman and managing director of Petersville Australia Ltd., which makes Peters ice-cream, and for the past 21 years he has been Consul for Denmark in Victoria.

3-: From the column Racing, by Tony Kennedy, published in The Age (Melbourne, Victoria) of Wednesday 29th October 1969:

When Americans take a fancy to a thoroughbred racehorse, there’s nothing in the world that will stop them from getting it.
And money — usually the stopper of the most carefree bidder — is the least of their worries.
This is why I feel thaat [sic] Daryl’s Joy, the pin-up middle distance three-year-old of the 1969 Spring Carnival, will eventually wind up in the USA.
And this is despite the recent sale negotiations which fell through because of an alleged “soft spot” on the colt’s knee.
Actually, Daryl’s Joy is as fit as a Mallee bull.
The colt showed his superb condition with a win over Vain and last Saturday, a decisive victory from Ben Lomond at the Valley.

4-: From Burning desire in Ward A6, by Des Colquhoun, editor-in-chief of The Advertiser (Adelaide, South Australia), published in The Vancouver Sun (Vancouver, British Columbia) of Friday 29th September 1978:

A week ago you were as fit as a mallee bull. Then from nowhere came the pain, the collapse, the innate awareness that it’s your heart, the doctor, the electrocardiogram, the blood test, the doctor sending you into the Royal Adelaide as fast as he can get you off his nervous hands.

In A Dictionary of Catch Phrases British and American, from the Sixteenth Century to the Present Day (Taylor & Francis, 2005), Paul Beale wondered, of Malley’s cow:

could this be the mate of the beast to be found at fit as a Malley bull . . . .