He’s introduced thousands of school children to the wonders of nature and the majesty of the Barrington Tops and now Ken Rubeli is set to retire.
The passionate environmental educator has sold Wangat Lodge with new owners set to take over in mid-December.
Wangat Lodge is a registered Wildlife Refuge and environmental education centre on Chichester Dam Road just out of Dungog, adjoining the Barrington Tops Gondwana Rainforest World Heritage Area.
Ken’s retirement marks the end of an era for the Lodge which he has been associated with for almost three decades.
He ran his last school camp this month when Kamaroi Rudolf Steiner School from Sydney spent two nights exploring Wangat's forest and wildlife.
Wangat's camps programs began in 1987 under the visionary leadership of Lodge builders Geoff and Isabel Armstrong.
Ken, with a background in forestry and nature education, was recruited to Wangat in 1988 with his primary task the design and implementation of environmental education programs.
He has since conducted more than 550 residential school camps for schools in the Hunter region and beyond.
"The Kamaroi children were a delight, as almost every camp has been over the years, " said Ken.
“There is a pattern we follow, leading from the Aboriginal custodianship of the land through the history of colonisation, the Chichester Dam and our use of natural resources, our connections to the natural world and our impacts upon it.
"Children spend most of their time here outdoors and really it's their exposure to the natural world - a pristine stretch of the Chichester River, the forest around the Lodge and especially the abundance of wildlife here - that makes the deepest impression upon them.
“We are just here to guide them, keep them safe, and share in their excitement along the way."
Ken's work with schools has been shared with others well known in the Dungog community including Bruce Read, Helen Rubeli, Nikki Brown, Jane Gilchrist and David Runciman.
Ian and Elenor Watson, and then David and Lisa Parmeter, prepared countless meals for school campers. But it was with Robert Pollock that the particular style of Wangat's operations developed and grew.
"Teachers had to learn to accept that Robert and I worked to a loose script," said Ken.
"If teachers weren't sure what was going to happen next it was because Robert and I worked spontaneously, like nature itself, moving with the mood of the moment and the inevitable diversions from encounters with a goanna or a snake or a thunderstorm or a child's distress at a leech.
“Robert and I worked together on school camps for 15 years and our sense of humour pervaded them all.
“If there isn't fun and laughter on a camp for the kids the environmental messages aren't going to be nearly so memorable.
“When we are enjoying what we do that lifts the experience for everyone."
Ken will continue to live in the area and stay active in community affairs.
He is keen to re-engage with his earlier career as a writer, photographer and “chronicler of nature”.
"At Wangat with school groups and weekend guests I've always had to be a 'people person', kindly and attentive to my guests' needs," said Ken.
“Now I'm looking forward to some time on my own, close to nature. My daughters will try their best to keep me sociable, but I might just quietly shapeshift into a grumpy old hermit."