The cu­ra­tor of Caper Town’s Kirsten­bosch Botan­i­cal Gar­den

As cu­ra­tor of Kirsten­bosch, Werner Voigt has his dream job – it’s a place that feeds his soul and re­minds him of his late mom

DRUM - - Contents - BY COLIN HENDRICKS

ONE of his ear­li­est mem­o­ries was es­cap­ing from crèche as a five-year-old, crawl­ing un­der the fence and run­ning to a nearby field where he’d pluck wild­flow­ers. “I’d pick yel­low and white daisies, which I’d string up and give to my mom as a neck­lace. That’s where my love of na­ture was born.”

It’s a love so strong it be­came Werner Voigt’s life work – and led to him re­cently be­ing ap­pointed to his dream job as cu­ra­tor of one of the gleam­ing jew­els in the South African tourism bou­quet: Kirsten­bosch Na­tional Botan­i­cal Gar­den in Cape Town.

Werner (43) knew he wanted to work amid the sprawl­ing park-like acres on the slopes of Table Moun­tain ever since he set eyes on the place dur­ing an ex­cur­sion as a horticultu­re stu­dent in 1995.

It was spring, he re­calls, and ev­ery­thing was in bloom. “I was amazed by the flowerbeds, the streams and plants. This is where I wanted to work.”

It was also where, four years later, he pro­posed to Car­men, the young woman he’d fallen in love with the sec­ond he was in­tro­duced to her by her brother.

“I asked her to marry me at Dell’s Dam. It’s a spe­cial place in Kirsten­bosch – the dam is filled with pure crys­tal-clear spring wa­ter.”

Now Kirsten­bosch is where he works ev­ery day – al­though he says he was a bit daunted when he landed the job.

AN ABID­ING love of na­ture runs through Werner’s life story, which is pep­pered with hard­ship and heart­break yet is ul­ti­mately also one of hope and hap­pi­ness. As a boy he lived in Elsies River in Cape Town with dad Nolan, who worked in a plas­tics fac­tory for more than 40 years, mom El­iz­a­beth, a housewife, his sis­ter, Mer­cia, and two of his three brothers.

“My child­hood years were tough,” he says. “We lived in the back­yard of an ­ac­quain­tance of my dad and when I was seven we moved to Bel­lville South where we again lived in some­one else’s back­yard. I still re­mem­ber the lace cur­tain that sep­a­rated the liv­ing room from the kitchen.

“We hadn’t been there for a year be­fore we moved to Eer­ste River. My dad had saved enough money for us to buy our

first home. He was ex­tremely proud of that house. Back then, there weren’t many houses and the area was over­grown with pine, gum and wat­tle trees.”

Werner and his old­est brother, Ad­lino, would run bare­foot through the bushes with coins in their pock­ets to buy bread for their mother, dash­ing from tree to tree to cool their feet in the scorching sum­mer months.

“We also used to make a meal in the veld near our house,” he re­calls. “We’d cut open a can of baked beans and take an un­sliced bread from home, then we’d make a fire un­der the trees to heat the beans.

“The Eer­ste River years were my best years. Those were good times.”

Werner’s love of na­ture deep­ened as he grew older and some of his fond­est mem­o­ries are go­ing camp­ing with fam­ily in his dad’s bot­tle-green Toy­ota Corona 1900, play­ing games on the beach and spend­ing time in the great out­doors.

“All of that fed my love for na­ture and plants. I’d known since I was five years old that I wanted to make it my life.”

He ma­tric­u­lated in 1993 at Klein­vlei Se­nior Sec­ondary School – as the school’s top stu­dent – and en­rolled at the Cape Penin­sula Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy, grad­u­at­ing in 1997 with a diploma in horticultu­re.

He then worked at a nurs­ery in Belville where he spot­ted a no­tice on the bul­letin board one day: Kirsten­bosch was of­fer­ing a two-year in­tern­ship. He called to re­quest an in­ter­view al­most im­me­di­ately.

“On my way I got lost and by the time I ar­rived I was drenched in sweat. My in­ter­view was in the same build­ing where my of­fice is now. My ap­pli­ca­tion was suc­cess­ful and I knew from the ­be­gin­ning I never wanted to leave this place. This was where I be­longed.”

But there was no per­ma­nent po­si­tion avail­able so when his in­tern­ship ended he got a job as a hor­ti­cul­tur­al­ist at the Ka­roo Desert Na­tional Botan­i­cal ­Gar­den in Worces­ter, where he and Car­men, a prepri­mary school­teacher, set­tled.

Their chil­dren, Emily (18), Ezra (14) and Bethanie-Rose (8), now com­plete the fam­ily. “We adopted Bethanie-Rose in 2010 – two months after a fam­ily tragedy. That year we lost some­one and gained some­one else.” HE ex­tended Voigt fam­ily and Car­men’s fam­ily were trav­el­ling in con­voy on an expedition through Namibia that Werner had or­gan­ised.

They’d crossed the bor­der with Werner’s dad driv­ing the bakkie at the back of the con­voy with Werner’s mom, his two younger brothers, Valdo and Kurt, and Adlino’s daugh­ter Ni­cole.

“It was a gravel road and there was a sud­den right turn. I wanted to tell my dad to be care­ful around the bend but I thought he’d be fine as he’d been driv­ing for years. To this day I re­gret not hav­ing warned him.”

Werner’s dad called him on the two-way ra­dio to tell him the bakkie had over­turned.

“I turned around and drove back to the scene. My mom was ly­ing in the mid­dle of the road. She’d died on im­pact. She was only 57.”

There were proteas on her cof­fin at the fu­neral along with daisies – the kind Werner had picked for her as a child.

“I think about her ev­ery day,” he says. “I re­cently read a news­pa­per ar­ti­cle about my cu­ra­tor­ship and I cried so much. My mom would’ve been so proud of me. She was one of the great­est in­spi­ra­tions be­hind my love of ­na­ture and ­gar­den­ing.

“In Eer­ste River she had a large gar­den with an abun­dance of plants – ­lilies, glad­i­oli, blue irises. Our lives changed dra­mat­i­cally after she died. Our fam­ily get- togethers have ended and her gar­den de­te­ri­o­rated. Noth­ing was ever the same again.”

In 2016 tragedy struck again: Adlino took his own life. “He was in the navy and suf­fered from de­pres­sion. It’s a ­tragic story.”

After eight years in Worces­ter, Werner got the job that would al­low a mea­sure of hap­pi­ness back into his heart.

Be­ing cu­ra­tor of an iconic place such as Kirsten­bosch is hum­bling, he says – the kind of place that makes peo­ple proud of their coun­try.

His ad­vice to peo­ple who visit is to let go of their cell­phones for a while and re­con­nect with na­ture in all its abun­dance and won­der.

Werner’s mom is never far from his side in this place of beauty. “I think of how she would’ve told ev­ery­one in her street in Eer­ste River that her son is now work­ing at Kirsten­bosch.

“I would’ve loved walk­ing with her in this gar­den, show­ing her all the plants.”

ABOVE: Werner with (from left) wife Car­men and their kids, ­Emily, Ezra and Bethanie-Rose. LEFT: Werner’s daugh­ter, Emily, and son, Ezra, en­joy­ing time at the beach with his mom, El­iz­a­beth, two years be­fore her death.

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