The man leading the Government's response to Covid-19 cut his teeth as a lands and survey ranger driving jetboats on the Whanganui River.
All of Government Controller John Ombler and his then-wife Kathy were based at Pipiriki in the early 1980s. They co-authored books about the river and Whanganui River Rd.
One of those formed the basis for investigating the establishment of Whanganui National Park.
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The river's headwaters had been diverted to generate electricity, and Ombler was one of those who assessed the impact on ecology and advised on the minimum flows regime now in place.
The Department of Lands and Survey morphed into the Conservation Department in 1987, and Ombler had a long career in the department (DoC). He was first the district conservator for Whanganui.
Stephen Hormann remembers working with him on the first plan for Whanganui National Park.
Ombler was personable, approachable, professional and calm under pressure, he said.
"I think a lot of people had faith in his leadership because he had done the hard yards out in the field. People respected and trusted that," Hormann said.
Ombler led the larger Hawke's Bay conservancy after that, and went on to work for DoC all over New Zealand, from Raoul Island to Fiordland. He moved around a lot.
Hormann remembers arranging a trip on the Matemateaonga Track for himself, Ombler and outdoors writer Shaun Barnett to show Barnett what DoC did.
"I remember that the first night in Omaru Hut we had fresh blue cod that John had caught two days earlier at Stewart Island."
Ombler had more and more senior positions, finishing his time at DoC as general manager of research, development and improvement.
His qualities made him a government "go-to" person.
After the Christchurch earthquakes, he helped draft the law that set up the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority, and was its founding chief executive until Roger Sutton was appointed, resuming the role after Sutton resigned.
In 2013, he was given a Queen's Service Order in the mid-year honours. Last year, he acted as Deputy State Services Commissioner for several months while recruitment for a permanent appointment was done.
Hormann has been impressed by the way his former colleague and other top officials have answered Covid-19 questions at media conferences.
"They are excellent spokespeople. They answer difficult questions as best they can. I think it helps people feel quite assured," he said.