20 February, 2019 By: Fleur Bainger
Deep in the forest, surrounded by towering pale-barked karri trees that stretch ramrod straight more than 90 metres into the sky, is a place with a past.
Even those who have not visited Karri Valley may know it was once a hub for the Rajneeshee cult’s Orange People, or heard of its party hard reputation in the 80's.
However the many incarnations of this elegant resort and its log-clad chalets are even more varied than that.
Hidden so well from Vasse Highway that you could drive past and miss it, for generations of locals and WA holiday makers Karri Valley has been a source of work and industry through to a bucolic weekend destination with tales sometimes as tall as the trees surrounding the log chalets.
This is the little known history of Karri Valley.
A hoppy life
Back in the 1950's, farmer Arthur Bunn decided to try his hand at growing hops in the natural valley where Karri Valley Resort is now located. The main buyer for the hops was WA’s own Swan Brewery.
The quantity Swan Brewery needed was more than Bunn could grow, with limited irrigation available from nearby Beedelup Brook. So, Bunn built a one-billion-litre dam - now Lake Beedelup - to feed his hop crops, making the farm a big part of the local industry.
Local Kevin Dunnet, whose family originally owned the land, worked there, carting hops into town for the Perth-bound train.
“The farm employed 200 to 300 townsfolk. Lots of women were also employed as seasonal workers, while men worked out at the timber mill,” says Dunnet.
Catching the big one
But the hops market changed when the Swan Brewery stopped buying. Bunn’s farm was carved up and sold, the lion’s share bought by a Perth-based syndicate with big dreams of creating a trout fishing retreat at the Lake.
The old hops drying shed became the getaway’s reception and a shared-accommodation lodge, where guests’ board included all meals, starting at $25 a night.
Neighbouring property owners Bev and Ken Lawrence remember what it was like in the beginning.
“There was the lodge and trout farm, three big chalets, basic ‘swagman’ huts, and a caravan park,” says Bev.
The new retreat was such a big deal that the then-WA premier Brian Burke even did the honours of officially cutting the ribbon in 1983 on the new Karri Valley Park.
As before, the Park was an important part of the local community. Bev was one of many who worked at the car-free, kangaroo and quokka-dotted Park as “a jack of all trades” in the early days.
“Everybody my age worked there,” she says. “I’d say 90 per cent of the locals in town had worked there at one time or another.”
An orange tangent
Then, another twist. A manager was appointed in the early ‘80s who was also a member of the Orange People – a cult which had become active in Fremantle. At the time he was appointed, the syndicate was not aware of his connection with the cult. In 1985, he allowed a small group of cult members to sub-lease Karri Valley Park.
Local Peter Cabassi was working as the Park’s maintenance manager at the time.
“There was just a handful of people there at the start, maybe eight or 12,” he says.
"They were like you and me; normal people that used to dress in orange clothing."
The Rajneeshee movement was started by an Indian self-help guru, who eschewed materialism and championed achieving super-consciousness through sexual expression. Its members became known as Orange People due to the orange robes they wore.
Cabassi says the Pemberton branch was low-key, in the beginning.
“I worked out there all day and I never saw people running around naked,” he says.
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“There were lots of stories but they weren’t true. Not once did anyone ask me to join. They paid their bills and paid on time.”
But after a holiday break, he returned to a different workplace. New members had arrived, increasing numbers to about 40. There were attempts to build a school for children who were sent on their own to the property by their cult-member parents.
Bev still has notes of phone calls made by relatives asking her to buy the children gifts for their birthdays. She carried out their wishes more than once.
Pemberton residents were alarmed at the moves to create a commune at Karri Valley and tensions increased after the Bhagwan's chief assistant, Ma Sheela Silverman, visited. She did a television interview with 60 Minutes, declaring it was "tough titties" if the 1000 or so townsfolk didn’t want the sect there.
The story fuelled fears Pemberton was being considered as the cult’s new global base, and Cabassi says the locals' patience quickly ran out with the Orange People.
“Things blew up and there was evidence of tax evasion and worse. That’s when moves were made to shut them down,” he says.
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Emotional town meetings were held, and the Shire denied the cult their development application to create a school on the property. A local MP also threatened to get the Federal Government to introduce anti-cult legislation. To get the group off the property, the syndicate made the decision to sell the resort. The Orange People moved on.
By the close of 1986, good times had returned. WA’s Government Employees Superannuation Board, GESB, took over the property, renaming it Karri Valley Resort and expanded it.
It became the place to go and be seen. Given this was the 80s, everything about Karri Valley became big – from the number of visitors to the size of the parties and even the number of fish the resort was commercially farming, which was smoking between 200 to 400 fish a week.
Bev Lawrence returned to work, this time as the front office manager, and her husband Ken took over the trout farm and kiosk.
Manny Schult moved to the area in 1987. He remembers the late 80's as the resort’s heyday.
“People would fly in with a chopper. The rich and famous used to come down,” he says. “It was humming. We’d get dressed up and come down and have sweets.”
New Year’s Eve parties were big. One year, Kevin Dunnet carted in enough sand to cover the tennis courts so a beach party could be staged. Live bands were brought in from Perth and wine festivals were put on.
“Pemberton used to be as popular as Margaret River,” says Dunnet. “There used to be at least 120 people a night in the restaurant and the resort used to book out a year ahead.”
Then, just like the high flying 80s, it was all over. For nearly two decades, WA’s much-loved gem fell on quieter times with a succession of new managers, owners, and big plans that never quite materialised. Until now.
After RAC acquired the property back in 2017, extensive renovations and refurbishments have modernised the accommodation and the stunning lakeside restaurant.
Schult, who is currently RAC Karri Valley’s maintenance manager, says it's like the property has come back to life. He says he's confident that Karri Valley is ready to start a new chapter and enthral a new generation of WA holiday makers.
“It had fallen into disrepair over the years,” he says. "Now we're returning it to its former glory, a place that matches the beauty of its surrounds.
"I’m glad to see it come back to being the icon it should be. You just don't find this anywhere else, with the trees and the location. It's very special.”
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