Crimpy’s People: Phil Walsh on Conquering Cascade

Phil Walsh is a Westcoaster, or more precisely a Bullerite: raised on a small farm near Westport, he revelled in the freedom the remote wilderness-choked region afforded. From childhood ramblings after eels, whitebait and possums, through to hunts for red deer on the pakihi plateaus, Phil became imbued with the spirit of the Buller and acquired some of the archetypal frontier spirit the region is renowned for.

It is no wonder he developed a love of adventure, nature and history, and it’s no surprise this spawned a flair for writing. The author of three books, Phil talked to me about his latest book, Conquering Cascade, and just how challenging tackling an historical novel was.

Crimpy: While it is said everyone has a book in them, few achieve one let alone three. What motivates you to write?

Phil: Life is full of wonder. Well, for me at least and it takes an array of forms. For example, the folly of two fishermen arguing some triviality on the riverbank; the magnificence of a mountain scene; the burden of grief recently shouldered; the iridescent colours of a freshly hooked snapper; the shock and awe of a big earthquake. Bearing witness to such events or stimuli has always impressed me. Perhaps I’m sensitive to the nuances of life? I’m not sure, but I’m often moved to describe these personal experiences/observations and share them with others.

Crimpy: From your debut book ‘Fur, Fish, and Phantom Reds’ (2014), Typical Coaster (2018), to

Conquering Cascade (2022), there is a shift in style and genre. What drove you to tackle a historical project like Conquering Cascade?

Phil: As a teenager and into my early 20s, I spent a lot of time hunting in the Cascade River area. It is steep and rugged country. Receiving over five metres of rainfall annually predisposes it to landslides and floods. Most years, acres of bush slide down into the creek, littering it with logs and debris. Destructive floods constantly scour the creek in an ever-shifting bed of rock and gravel.

Appreciating these challenges, the notion of building and operating a wooden coal flume down the entire length of Cascade Creek struck me as quite inconceivable, but it was necessary if the rich seam of high quality coal was to be tapped into. There was no other way to efficiently transport it to Westport. Remarkably such a coal flume was built. My research revealed it to be the longest in New Zealand and operational for 28 actionpacked years.

It was also an epic pioneer saga of hardship, adversity and ultimate triumph; an example of limited resources and iron will overcoming impossible odds to wrest from nature what was later to be termed Black Gold.

Crimpy: What difficulties and interesting insights did you discover on your journey?

Phil: Well, it took ten years of research so it was quite the journey. Meeting with all the people and interviewees was a highlight of the project. Geology and mining are quite the esoteric professions. I’m not a geologist or a miner. Working out what was really going on was critical to understanding. That takes time. I’d have been lost without guidance from so many people.

John Rocfort proved to be such a fascinating character. His party’s movements after capsizing their canoe in the Buller River (above Lyell Creek) in November 1859 demanded so much additional research. There were some interesting revelations there and I’m content with my findings.

Crimpy: Clearly a mammoth task—was there a price to pay and has there been a personal impact?

Phil: Yes, most definitely. Balancing the thousands of hours required to complete the project against marital, family and full-time work obligations was challenging. My wife, Michaela, has been very considerate and I’m grateful but after ten years of seeing me glued to the keyboard, she deserves her husband back. I’m enjoying spending more time with Michaela, the kids and friends.

Learn more about Phil Walsh and Conquering Cascade at philwalsh.net

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