“Nature, My Church”

By Frederik Cocquyt, April 2020

In 1976 I was born in Belgium with a Catholic background. I did not actually understand what Catholicism meant except that Mary was supposedly considered more important than Jesus. I recall going to mass with my grandfather and my mother, but never together as a family. My grade one teacher was a Catholic priest. At the age of seven we immigrated to South Africa at the height of apartheid in 1983 just as I started grade two. With South Africans mostly Protestant we never attended church except for a wedding in Johannesburg. In 1986 we moved to Ellisras near the Botswana border.

I always had an internal urge for nature and adventure from youth from reading Tintin and other adventure stories. Ellisras is in the middle of nowhere with the closest other small town, about two hours away. Nature and surroundings were up close and personal to us. Ellisras was home until I was 20 years of age.

When we moved to Ellisras there were no neighbours. Our closest neighbour was four houses away! We had a block where there were no houses. Right across from our house was completely untouched vacant land. Not far from it there was another large piece of bush with a walking trail and an Afrikaans Voortrekker camp similar to Boy Scouts.

We often saw monkeys, small antelope like duiker and even impala. My younger brother, Vincent, and I spent hours in the bush and trails digging up scorpions and just fooling around. Meeting some other childhood friends in the area, who happened to be Portuguese, we built a sizeable tree house platform in the biggest tree in our deserted block. It was paradise for all of us, especially on long school holidays.

When school began, I was lucky enough to start at a brand new campus that opened its doors for the first time. There were 800 students. Most of our afternoons were spent outside the house. Coming from Belgium and not seeing rain for days on end was abnormal for us. I did not complain, as we made bows and arrows, raced in the empty street with our bicycles, made pretend rifles with wood, and built forts with building bricks we found.

One Sunday we took a drive to explore the new surroundings. We took a dirt road north to nowhere. We followed the road signs to a place called Beska. We drove to a farm entrance. The farm sign stated “Pretorius.” I remember telling my father I knew a boy in school in Johannesburg and his surname was also Pretorius. I told my father Pretorius people are good people. We went onto the two-track dirt road toward their farmhouse. This was the beginning of a long good friendship. For me this was even better than were we to stay on an actual farm.

The Pretorius Family owned a cattle farm, which happened to naturally inhabit wild game! There were leopards, hyenas and other fascinating animals. I would collect and identify different types of wild game dung. I learned how to identify tracks. I learned about the different trees, as well.

When I was 14, I was blessed enough to hunt my first game animal on that farm. From then onward I hunted most school holidays. It was my break away from the world. It was where I was most at peace and felt like I belonged.

We regularly attended church with the Pretorius family. We would meet them at church and from there drove to the farm for lunch. Church was very conservative with strict rules and formalities. It really was no fun, but at least we could go to the farm, which was half an hour away.

In high school I met a friend who lived on a farm not too far from the Pretorius farm. They had two big fields were peanuts and watermelon were grown. This attracted warthogs. This friend stayed in the school hostel during the week and went home on weekends. I would join him over the weekends. This became another way for me to keep getting outdoors to hunt and not have to go to church on Sundays!

My friend’s family called themselves Christians, yet they seldom went to church. I also had another friend who lived on a farm that I visited on weekends and school holidays. They often attended church each Sunday. It was a Protestant church and not as conservative as the church the Pretorius family attended.

I shot my first kudu on my friend’s farm along with other game. I had my 16th birthday party on the farm as we had birthdays a day apart. My mother, who could truly bake in a quality manner, baked birthday cake for the party. I can vividly remember we had the air conditioner on full blast inside the car on the way to the farm for the cream not to melt away. It is strange how certain memories get stuck in our mind. We had a good weekend on the farm with many friends.

It felt historically that I was always searching for the perfect family as ours seemed unusual and atypical. My father made me work many weekends when I was home, I do not recall much special family time by our house. We would either visit people or attend a work party of my father’s employer. There was not much to do in town except to socialize.

Depression was high in Ellisras especially among housewives. There was very little to do other than house chores. Housing was mostly paid by the two major companies in town. It was common that only the men worked. There were no malls or movies. We could rent movies. Ellisras happened to have the largest video collection in one single store in the southern hemisphere at a point.

Other than socializing with alcohol or golf there was not much to do in town. It was difficult for teenagers to have freedom of quality activities in Ellisras. Farm visits were the best for us where I could hunt and enjoy nature. Alas, later I started to drink to socialize like the rest of the town. While all this happened my mother and father separated. My mother returned to Belgium. I had my inner battles with being a rebel with no sense of an identity.

With all the chaos I found peace and purpose in being in the bush. There I felt I understood how nature worked. On farms in nature I relatively knew the life patterns of plants and animals. It was far from the complications of society.

Before my mother returned to Belgium, she was diagnosed with depression. That was a cyclone that hit our family and I did not understand anything about depression. Driving four hours to Pretoria to admit my mother to a hospital was a challenge. She was given shock therapy. The four of us lived in our own respective worlds. My brother had his friends where he would break away. My father made sure he would always be social. My mother kept undergoing treatment now and again. Something changed in her and she had no support from us. We were accustomed to having everything done for us such as supper, lunch and a clean house. I started to resent my mother similar in a way to my father when he forced me to work on weekends. We would come back home from school and my mother was not there. When my mother was there evenings were filled with constant bickering amongst all of us. I spent more time in my room behind a closed door and tried to live my own life.

For a short time we attended a Catholic church out of town. It was interesting to me that for the first time there were non-whites in a church. When people walked forward to have Communion I was not allowed. No one explained to me why it was so. I felt like an outcast between the Protestant and Catholic churches. I did not feel at home or peace! It was an event I needed to attend in order to go to the farm and get away from the world.

My mother left and somehow, we kept the house in order we had a housekeeper help with cleaning and ironing. I had it in my mind that I wanted to become a professional hunter after school. That was the only vocation that made sense in a way to be in the bush all the time where I understood how nature worked.

With my mother gone and my father somehow trying to make up for what had happened I convinced him to pay to let me go on the professional hunter course in that same year. We had a short school holiday end of September of ten days which were the exact dates the course would happen. By law a person must be 21 years of age to become a professional hunter. No law stated when a person could do the course. I spent the 10 days on the course and passed it! Going back to school I was the first in school to have accomplished the course. That gave me identity.

School, especially maths and algebra, went south as I rebelled against teachers in grades nine and ten. I lost the plot. My father a few years before my mother left bought a small holding outside of town. The land was nice next to a river and 18 hectares of mountainous terrain filled with wandering game. If I was not away on a friend’s farm, we were there during the weekends to develop the place. If I was not working, I was off in the mountain. There were no fences or borders in the mountain, I roamed over a few properties as nobody would venture there.

Again I found peace in nature away from the world, and although I knew the story of Jesus for me it was just history. I had no understanding why Jesus died for us. Church and religion did not make sense to me. Even though other classmates seemed to be accepted by their churches I was feeling like an outcast again.

I got married to my beautiful wife, Charmaine, in 2002 had our only child, a son who we named Aaron, born in 2005. Trying to make a living was not easy with no backup in finances as a full time professional hunter. I continued as a professional hunter until it materialized. I found a person who would be a partner with the finance ability in our outfitting business. I had the contacts and clients that I built up over the years. I found myself living my dream, I might add my selfish dream. I was spending 220 to 250 days a year away from home.

One day in 2011 next to the Zambezi river in Mozambique near the Indian Ocean, we were hunting buffalo, hippo and crocodile with an American client. There something new happened. I questioned my life. I was 35, the relationship between my outfitting partner and me was growing sour, and the world was changing to more anti-hunting. Can I keep doing this for the rest of my life and still make a living? The 2011 hunting season was my last season as a full time professional hunter and outfitter. I quit what I always longed to do. It was not worth it anymore. I missed my son growing up and it was tough on Charmaine.

December 2011 a colleague from Charmaine’s work asked if we wanted to join them at church, Charmaine was working that Sunday. Aaron and I went to our friend’s church. I was impressed as it was not conservative and the worshipping was with a real band using electric guitars, which was up my ally. The sermon was good, and the worshipping was different. I felt something inside of me firing up. I started reading a book on a band member of a famous hard core band who turned his life around. I could relate in the moment.

One day at home alone on our bed I cried out to GOD to lift me up and show me a way. I was desperate!

Sunday after Sunday we went to church as often as we could. I still felt like an outcast as everyone looked successful and seemed to materially have what they needed. I was financially struggling and not doing too well on work but kept at it.

May 2012, we had R. T. Kendall visit as a guest speaker at our church to do a course in the week at the church during the evenings. I asked one of my old friends to come along as I thought he would need it more than me. That night my life changed at an altar call. I was remade and it felt like the scales fell off my eyes. I finally understood how and why Jesus died for us. I knew the story. His Story grasped me that night when it became real!

Less than a year later I quit the job that I had as I could not continue with my boss screaming and swearing at me all the time. I was unemployed for about four months. With the emotional support from our church group and the strength that I knew there was a bigger plan from GOD, I found another job. Something I never thought of or knew I could enjoy. I pursued my relationship with Jesus. At the same time income-wise it went better due to my new employment to such a degree that I could go hunting again. Although I have guided and seen much of Africa with hunters, I did not hunt for my enjoyment, as I was then able.

I found peace in church and realized the difference between religion and a relationship with Jesus. Church is not the building. Church is His people, who have a relationship with Him. It took me about 36 years to get saved. GOD’S timing is always perfect timing. I now understand why nature was so close to me as it is created by GOD. He gave me peace in His creation. And looking back it was not a coincidence that we moved to Ellisras. It was not a coincidence that GOD would allow me to befriend a boy from Johannesburg with the surname of Pretorius so that we could meet The Pretorius Family in Ellisras.

I better understand and believe that a relationship with GOD can be built over generations. I feel that I am at a start of this relationship with GOD on my side of my family. Charmaine and her mother had been praying for me all these years to be saved and have a relationship with Jesus. As head of my house I need to take my identity as a child of GOD to better improve our relationship with Him for coming generations and the world. I am very blessed to enjoy church in town and in nature. GOD is always with us with His perfect timing for everything!

By Landon

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