From sawmill to sustainability, Dungog's 2024 Environmental Citizen of the Year, Ken Rubeli, has seen it all.
The once reluctant logger, turned environmentalist had an early career epiphany and since has been spreading the word about saving our environment.
Born in 1946, Mr Rubeli's awakening into nature happened in primary school during a trip to Sherbrooke Forest, in Victoria, with his family. "We spent a night in a little guest house and we would go out in this misty forest. There were lyrebirds on a mound performing the whole shimmering dance. Maybe I imagined it but it seems to me that that touched me in some way," he said.
After finishing high school Mr Rubeli went into the forestry industry - an excuse to work outdoors. Ironically, it was while cutting trees he learnt about the concept of sustainability. "I was about 26 and my boss sent me to mark an area that would be the sawmill's allocation. I walked down the ridge and I thought 'how could you log this? This is just so beautiful and there's just so little of it left'. I became an uneasy forester," Mr Rubeli said.
Entering his late 20s and tired of forestry, Mr Rubeli changed course and volunteered as a teacher in Malaysia. It was here where he fell in love with rainforests. During his 13 years there he spent time working and walking its many tropical rainforests, resulting in him photographing, writing and publishing his book "Tropical Rainforests in South-East Asia: A Pictorial Journey".
Returning to Australia as a 40-year old with hardly any possessions in the 1980's, Mr Rubeli moved into a small terrace house in Balmain, Sydney. "I was a lost soul. All I knew was the Malaysian rainforest so I ran tours from Australia back to the Malaysian rainforest," Mr Rubeli said.
After touring between Australia and Malaysia for two years, Mr Rubeli met the son of the original owners of Wangat Lodge, Geoff and Isabel Armstrong who invited him to do guided tours of the area in the 1990's. Over the 29 years that he spent at Wangat, Mr Rubeli conducted 550 camps and showed thousands of kids the bushland around the lodge. "We started off by telling them the history of the forest. We couldn't talk about the wilderness of Australia without involving the indigenous people," he said.
Mr Rubeli has been involved in multiple community initiatives including Dungog Pedalfest, advocating against Tillegra Dam and being involved with Dungog Common. He hopes more people will become environmental citizens for the sake of future generations. "I don't see the environment as looking after a forest, I see it as much bigger than that. It's every element of our lives."