Mourning a friend, Charlotte man found healing – amid surreal African beauty

As I snapped a picture of the black rhino, I heard him snort, then felt the ground shake as he charged my truck. I sped off just in time to avoid certain death in the Namibian bush.

How did I end up in this arid African country?

This past May, my best friend died suddenly from a rare brain tumor. Max Diaz was a beloved assistant district attorney for Mecklenburg County, and only 12 days separated his diagnosis from his death. Max’s passing sent me into a deep sadness that was difficult to escape.

Some people opt for traditional therapy to cope with grief. I embarked on an action-packed road trip around Namibia in September as my medicine. Its alien landscape and ancient culture called out to me. I wanted to step out of my comfort zone and drive headfirst into the unknown.

Nestled between Angola and South Africa, Namibia is located in southwestern Africa, along the Atlantic Ocean and the Tropic of Capricorn. Blessed with abundant sunshine, a healthy population of big game and surreal landscapes, Namibia is the perfect place to get lost.

Armed with two maps (no GPS), a suitcase of CDs and a four-wheel-drive truck, I drove 1,800 dusty miles, exploring Etosha National Park, Damaraland, the Skeleton Coast, Namib-Naukluft National Park, the NamibRand Nature Reserve and the capitol city of Windhoek.

The first part of my expedition took me five hours north of Windhoek, to the expansive Etosha National Park, also known as the Place of Mirages. Just minutes into my morning safari at Onguma Lodge, I was face to face with a magnificent male lion. Only 20 feet separated my truck from the king of the veld. His piercing eyes locked onto mine. My heart skipped a beat as he rose to inspect a herd of wildebeest behind me. I was captivated by his fierce beauty.

For the next six days, with the help of local guides, I tracked elephants, rhinoceroses, cheetahs, giraffes, lions and other game. Michael, my guide at Etosha Heights’ Safarihoek Lodge, placed me in a cleverly built photo hide, perched above a busy waterhole. For several hours, we secretly watched a vibrant ecosystem operate in perfect harmony during the dry season. Forty vultures landed one by one on the water’s edge, scaring off families of warthogs and guinea fowl. Herds of kudu, impala, zebras and springbok cautiously tiptoed to quench their thirst, mindful of the predators in the bush. At night, I heard the roars of lions and the eerie cries of hyenas and jackals.

My Monday morning commute across Etosha was an unforgettable visual odyssey. A traffic jam of springbok forced to me to pull over. As I patiently waited, a herd of elephants strolled into a pool of gray mud, trumpeting their relief from the punishing heat. Twenty minutes later I shifted into gear and my mind drifted to memories of Max as Led Zeppelin jammed on the radio.

The second part of my journey took me west to the Skeleton Coast. With a full tank of gas and some of Max’s favorite music playing (Robert Earl Keen’s “The Road Goes on Forever” giving way to Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” and Tom Petty’s “Learning to Fly”), I navigated through the rocky hills of Damaraland towards the icy Atlantic Ocean. Conspicuous road signs warned me to watch out for desert elephants. Baboons scurried away from the gravel road as I bumped along the C35 highway, littered with shredded tires and abandoned cars. I was thankful for my sturdy 4x4.

Thirty miles before I reached the Skeleton Coast, a mountain of fog appeared on the horizon. The sun disappeared and the temperature dropped 20 degrees. The road turned from sand to salt. Upon reaching the coast, I quickly noticed this was not the calm Atlantic that I swam in as a child. I stopped to note the pounding surf, breathe in the ocean air and marvel at nature’s power, as I photographed a shipwreck on the beach.

Turning south, the slippery salt road led me into the port city of Swakopmund. There, I feasted on fresh-caught John Dory and succulent oysters. This charming city is a respite from the grueling heat of the interior. It is also home to some great restaurants and tour companies that offer dune-bike riding, sand boarding and other adrenaline sports.

Heading east, the cool temperatures of the coast gave way to searing desert heat as I drove into the Namib-Naukluft National Park. Thirty miles from Walvis Bay, the thick fog burned off, revealing a desolate terrain thirsty for rain. I descended warily into the steep Kuiseb Canyon: There was no guardrail to stop my truck from careening over its edge. So I shifted into low gear and crept along the curvy C14 highway. I didn’t see a soul for hours, until I reached the Tropic of Capricorn. After a brief stop and obligatory photo, my route turned south, sending me into a sea of sand and the tallest dunes in the world.

For the last part of my journey, I explored the oldest desert in the world. At Wolwedans Dune Lodge, I slept in a solar powered chalet that was truly off grid. Wandering the cinnamon-colored dunes felt as if I were walking on Mars. The silence was deafening. Each day as I watched the sunrise and sunset, I was thankful for the peace and solitude the desert provided. Most inspiring was a hot-air-balloon ride that took me high above the parched landscape. Floating at the speed of wind, I rose above the Namib Desert and basked in the thrill of flying. My spirits lifted. Surrounded by such natural beauty, I began to make peace with Max’s death.

After returning to Earth and a champagne brunch, I left on my final adventure – deep into the dunes, to Deadvlei (which means “dead marsh”). My Toyota Hilux powered past stranded cars to the trailhead, accessible only by four-wheel-drive vehicle. My boots filled with hot sand as I hiked up the last ridge. Out of breath, I was mesmerized by ancient camel thorn trees, burned black by the sun. They stood in stark contrast to the cream-colored clay pan below, and the mountains of red sand surrounding it, capped by a brilliant blue sky. I wandered around for an hour, oblivious to the heat, soaking in its barren beauty.

After two weeks in Namibia, it was time to return home.

Yes, I survived – both that early rhino charge and later, my feasting on fried mopane worms (caterpillars), and the scaling and descent of those highest dunes.

But what I loved most about my African adventure was that my choice of medicine worked.

I befriended Namibians of Damara, Herero, Himba, Nama and Ovambo descent. Perhaps most important to me, I realize now, was Anna, the guide who took me deep into Katutura, a shanty town like Soweto and a place where Namibia’s struggle with its emerging identity is clear. Working mainly with white tourists, and as a woman entrepreneur, Anna seeks to break boundaries and effect change in a country where domestic violence – the area of law in which Max fought most passionately – is common. He would have loved to hear her story, and to know about her fight.

Getting lost in this wild, rugged country helped me find the strength to say goodbye.

Wade Carpenter, a Charlotte native who lives uptown, is an attorney, working alongside his father at Carpenter & Carpenter in Gaston County. When he’s not in the courtroom, he’s traveling, preferably off the beaten path.