Karri Valley Resort is one of those iconic attractions in Western Australia’s South Sest, or it should be.
Anyone who has visited the location would have been struck by the beauty of this site, which sits beside Lake Beedelup, a dam constructed in the 1950s, and is surrounded by forest dominated by trees of the resort’s namesake, the second tallest species in the world.
It is the sort of place that could be home to a unique luxury escape – like Cable Beach Resort in Broome or El Questro Station in the east Kimberley – yet it never reached that kind of status, at least from my perspective and its current three-star rating.
Perhaps this failure to hit the mark lies in the resort’s strange ownership history from the 1980s and 1990s, which I partly exhumed up after noticing it was up for sale (see story here). Among its past owners are the state’s pension fund and a controversial religious sect.
For the past 13 years, though, it has been in more traditional hands.
Malaysian group Sime Darby, which has put the resort and two other WA hospitality assets (short-stay apartment complexes) up for sale, bought the resort in 2000 from GESB, the state government employees’ superannuation fund manager.
More focused these days on palm oil, Sime Darby paid $6.6 million for the site, which fitted into the group’s strategy for WA at the time, including its existing car rental business and tourism assets such as the Freycinet Inn at Margaret River.
Before that, information is pretty light on.
It was managed by the Accor group for some time and before that Western Resorts, a local hospitality business that was run at the time by Peter Prendiville, and had well-known winemaker Mark Hohnen and businessman Ivan Hoffman on its board.
Mr Prendiville, who is now best known for his winemaking business Sandalford, which also has significant hospitality assets, said Karri Valley was one of 40 interests that Western Resorts had at the time, including about 20 hotels. It managed the site on behalf of GESB or the Government Employees Superannuation Board as it was known in those days.
He does not know how the state government’s pension fund ended up in control of the property.
GESB did end up inheriting some very odd assets as a result of strange dealings during the WA Inc era, so perhaps it was part of that. It was, most likely, too small to attract attention among far more significant deals.
Perhaps the most colourful part of Karri Valley Resort’s history is that it was owned in the mid-1980s by the Rajneeshees, better known as the Orange People, a sect that was quite prominent in WA at that time, especially in Fremantle before Alan Bond won the America’s Cup and the port town received a massive facelift.
According to a Wall Street Journal article I found from 1985, the Rajneeshees had upset the nearby Pemberton community by taking over the tourist attraction and doing what they did best at the time – overwhelming the local populace.
It seems the Rajneeshees were considering Pemberton as a potential headquarters if their Indian leader, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, was booted out of the US where he’d established the sect’s HQ in Oregon.
If only the trees could talk, although I am happy to hear from anyone with more information – just to fill in the blanks.