Travel Story The WA family that saved a South West tourism icon

Photo of Steve Butler

A cancer diagnosis prompted a big change for the Beissel family — one that would eventually lead them to restoring Manjimup's Fonty's Pool to its former glory.

In helping to save the life of an icon of regional WA, Jeremy Beissel has in many ways saved his own. But restoring Fonty’s Pool, on the outskirts of Manjimup, to its former glory has been anything but a regulation journey for the Beissel family, who suspect they have even had some help from beyond the grave from late owner and founder, Archimedes Fontanini.

But more on that later.

Jeremy and his wife Kelly were happily trading out of their rock lobster fishing boat off WA’s northern Coral Coast when his increasing tiredness, lingering sinus infections and regular bouts of illness were diagnosed as acute myeloid leukemia.

“It was a pretty harrowing time and it could have gone either way,” Mr Beissel says.

The couple had taken out a new income protection insurance policy at the urging of their bank just three months earlier, and the timing could not have been more perfect. It allowed Jeremy and Kelly to build a caravan out of an old hay-carting trailer and travel around Australia with young daughters Josie and Carly for 14 months while he fought his health battle. By the time they arrived back in Leeman and returned to the fishing game, Mr Beissel’s health had improved markedly. But the Beissels soon realised they had moved on and were looking for a change away from the sea.

Mr Beissel knew nothing of Fonty’s Pool in 2005 when his mum told him it was for sale. So after checking out a potential backpacking business in Dunsborough, they decided to detour to the Manjimup venture and immediately fell in love.

“We drove in here and saw a mess of a place which was really beautiful and had heaps of potential,” he says.

“It needed a lot of work and a lot of energy and effort but we just felt like it was something we could do. If we’d thought about it for too long we probably would have scared ourselves off but it just felt right and we just had to make a gut call. We could tell it was a special place.”

With the tender closing in one week, it was a heartbeat call that has changed their lives. A positive meeting with two of Mr Fontanini’s grandchildren added to their optimism about rebuilding the caravan park.

“We could tell this was an important place that needed somebody to do the right thing,” Mr Beissel says. “Once we landed here and started speaking to the locals, it became more evident how important this place was to Manjimup. We realised what we had taken on, we had to do it right.”

Once the refurbishment gained momentum, he says locals were quick and generous with their time and help. But it was an insurance blow that ultimately proved a bonus.

The property insurer decided not to take on a new public liability policy under the Beissels’ management. It added initial financial pressure but the 18 months before they could negotiate a new insurance deal allowed them time and space to rebuild the iconic venue.

“Without being open, we could solve the problems we needed to and we could think bigger picture while everything was in bits,” Mr Beissel says.

Still, asked how many times the project nearly ended in divorce, his answer is emphatic: “Oh, twice ... a day”.

One look at the property now, including chalets in the refurbished park and a $19,000 pool fence that defines the historic part of the property, reveals an extreme makeover success story. It is one Mr Beissel sheepishly admits may have enjoyed some input from the late owner.

“There’s something here — I call it fate, you can call it Archie’s presence if you like,” he says. “The right person just always seems to turn up here at the right time when there’s a need. I’m the biggest sceptic and cynic there is, and I don’t like to admit it, but it’s uncanny, whether it’s the right caravan couple, the right friend or whatever — the place has a history of people with the right skill set dropping in at the right time.”

Mr Fontanini arrived in Australia from Italy in 1904 and, after working for three years at the Greenbushes Timber Corporation sawmill, bought the Fonty’s Pool property. The pool, which holds 18 million litres of water and has a winter flow rate of 44,000 litres per hour, was opened to the public in 1925. Mr Fontanini died, aged 102, in 1982.

Mr Beissell believes the beauty of Fonty’s Pool is in its versatility, from a couple enjoying a coffee while overlooking the pool to a wedding and reception or the seventh annual Truffle Kerfuffle, which will again attract thousands of visitors next weekend.

The festival of food and wine started almost by accident.

“When we came here we didn’t even know what a black truffle was and no one had even found one back then,” he says.

“Now we’re in the largest hub for black truffles in the Southern Hemisphere and it will probably become the black truffle hub of the world. When we started we got a few volunteers and put up a festival and 1200 people turned up. It was ridiculous.

“The reason why it’s become a great, unique festival is because it’s such a hands-on, get your hands in the dirt and sample the great food product show ... this is the real deal and where it all happens. It’s a real experience at a place with a real wow factor.”

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