CHARLES Davidson was told it was pointless to look for natural hot springs in Australia, but he quit his job anyway to pursue his 'obsession'.
It was the heady mix of natural beauty and steaming hot water, bubbling from the earth below, that instantly converted Charles Davidson into a fanatic.
"I went to a spa town in Japan, a couple of hours from Tokyo, and lay back in the pool, which was surrounded by snow, and had an epiphany – this is what I would love to do," Charles says.
"It was the most relaxed I’d ever been. I thought, ‘Why don’t we have this in Australia’. We go to the beach and love the outdoors, but this is the most relaxing activity."
So Charles ditched his day job as a highly successful trade representative with Australia’s embassy in Japan and, as a man driven by "an obsession", set about learning how to find and then build a hot spring spa.
That was back in 1992 and it took another eight years before Peninsula Hot Springs in Rye, on the Mornington Peninsula, was built as the first natural hot springs centre in Victoria.
Today the 17ha property has thermal pools, baths, and a variety of treatments, and unlike the mineral spring country around Hepburn Springs, Rye’s water is naturally heated between 37-43C.
While Charles says those eight years were pockmarked with obstacles, never did he waiver from his dream.
The first obstacle came at the outset, after the initial hot springs experience, when Japanese hydrologists told him that Australia would have no hot springs resource because, unlike Japan, it was not on a fault-line.
Not to be dissuaded, Charles began travelling the world to study hot springs culture, eventually visiting 22 countries – from an initial 100 in Japan, then on to Yemen, Egypt, the Czech Republic and Russia, taking to the waters at the world’s best.
A breakthrough came while having a beer with a Victorian government representative at the Japanese embassy.
"He asked me what I wanted to do with my life and I told him about the mineral springs idea. He said he remembered reading a 1979 report from the department of minerals and energy that there was hot water on the Mornington Peninsula," he says.
"That moment was wow, a real calling.’" It had a special wow factor because Charles’ ancestors’ connection to the peninsula dates back to 1842, when Alexander Balcombe built the Briars historic homestead.
Charles quit his job, invited his brother Richard – who’d studied environmental science – to be a partner in the business concept and together they searched for property around the old Rye bore.
Then came the risk.
"We’d bought the land, but then we had to make sure there was hot water under it. It costs about $1 million to dig a hole in the ground to make a bore," says the father-of-four, whose wife is Japanese.
"So there are risks involved. It’s not for the faint-hearted. All I can say is that when you have a passion for something, you drive it."
After one failed test, the second drilling struck liquid gold. Once investors were onboard they were set. While stages one and two of the original plans have been completed, Charles and Richard still intend to implement the final stages – to build a wetland and bird sanctuary, a 126-lodge accommodation and a wellness centre.
Each year the spa attracts 320,000 visitors and each day it pumps 600,000 litres of sustainable-yield water from the 637m-deep aquifer. Charles says the potential for hot springs across Victoria is untapped and he envisages a possible coastal hot spring trail.
"There’s people in Metung, Warrnambool and Phillip Island looking at the concept," he says.
"Victoria is so well positioned for the hot spring industry it could easily be the hot spring capital of Australia, especially with the winters we get.
"The ultimate goal is to make it a cultural activity, where Anglos mix with Indians, Chinese or Arabic for relaxation and wellbeing. Some days you can just immerse yourself in culture here."