Travel Story WA: Preston Beach finds its feet after bushfires

Photo of Steve Butler

Footprints resort is a family-friendly hidden gem that's part of a community with a strong spirit. 

Out of the ashes, a typical country WA resilience is rising through the people of Preston Beach.

“The bush was completely devastated here ... there was nothing,” local tourism operator Bruce Welsh recalled just over two years since fires ripped through the Peel town, 134km south of Perth.

“It will take a long time for the green to hide the burns on the branches and the trunks and a long time for the trauma and scars of what happened over those few days to be completely gone. But if you drive down the Forrest Highway, you can see patches of green growing out and it’s much the same with the people.”

Mr Welsh, a veteran WA race car driver who two years ago added the slow lane of Preston Beach living to the fast lane of his sport, said the emotional fightback in the town’s people was becoming more palpable by the day.

He said even during the most challenging times, locals were more concerned about those affected in nearby Yarloop where two men lost their lives. Preston Beach people had even adopted some of those who had lost their homes to help them get back on their feet.

“It’s the Australian spirit, mate,” he said. “The town had no power because the fires had burnt down the poles and it was being run off two massive generators. It was challenging and a lot of people who came down realised we were under duress and under stress from what happened and the town was still trying to rebuild itself.

“There are still some underlying scars there, but these are country town people who just got together and got on with it.”

Mr Welsh is the manager of Footprints Preston Beach, a hidden gem of a resort a 90-minute drive from Perth.

The property is undergoing significant refurbishments to its 78 beach shacks and town houses, and Mr Welsh said Footprints had also become heavily involved in fundraising events and community functions, including an annual “Christmas in July” and winter winery tours.

It has regular activities for children such as petting zoos and movie nights. Located within walking distance of the beach, it also has western grey kangaroos roaming freely throughout the property and a licensed cafe complete with a pool bar and menu with a good list of cocktails.

There is an open, grassed play area and plans for a significant playground to be built on an adjacent block.

“We knew we had a challenge when we got here, but we’re slowly building it back up and getting on top of things,” Mr Welsh said.

“We also had to become part of the community ... people can take you on face value, but they will also look at your performance. And in a place like this, they don’t go backwards to come forward.”

Mr Welsh, a former Bunbury radio broadcaster who worked alongside entertainment greats such as John K. Watts, Lionel Yorke and Colin McEwan, was once assistant manager at what is now the Mercure Perth hotel. He also had a seven-year stint working at the former Burswood Casino as part of his strong, service-based hospitality industry background.

His daughter April, who also drives in the Formula V category with her father at Barbagallo Raceway, was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at the age of four and is part of the Footprints staff.

“I love the fact you’ve got the beach one way and the salt lakes and national park the other way,” she said.

“We’re quite lucky in the sense that the kangaroos come in so we get that experience, but also going out and doing the actual walking trails ... they’re just gorgeous. The salt lakes at particular times of the year become a real pink colour and it’s really nice.

“A lot of people do the four-wheel-driving on the beach, which is a highlight for the 20 to 30-year-olds and also young families. But it’s just the getting away and it’s still got that small-town, friendly vibe.

“It’s a lovely spot which is very unrecognised. A little hidden gem, really, and it’s the locals who make the town.”

One of those locals is Preston Beach Bush Fire Brigade captain Steve Thomas, who said the community banded together in good times and bad, but particularly through the fires.

“It’s a time I’ll never forget,” Mr Thomas said.

“People are still healing, people are still concerned. There’s a lot of scarring and people have been emotionally affected. But I had the privilege of being in a town that worked as one and the results speak for themselves.

“The people here are loving and giving. The perfect mob.”

Mr Welsh said he hoped people would come to see Footprints as a great family resort.

“It’s a place that you don’t have to drive miles to get to and one that is also safe and family-based, where the kids can ride their scooters around the paths and have a great time,” he said.

“If people come here, they get a relaxing, family beach holiday. A lot of people drive past on the highway, see the signs and know something is in here, but they’re not sure what. Others come in and find it’s not what they thought it was. 

“It’s taken a while, but we feel like we’re starting to get a bit of traction. And we knew we would.”

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