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
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.