Detectives to join hunt for missing man in Mali

Two detectives from Sussex are preparing to venture into the heart of West Africa on the trail of a British explorer who has been missing for almost a year.

Christian Velten set out on a solo expedition to cross West Africa by foot, donkey and a dugout canoe last February as part of a life-long ambition to retrace the route of the 18th-century adventurer Mungo Park.

The zoology graduate, 28, from East Sussex, planned to take five months to travel through Gambia, Mali, Niger and Nigeria, before heading to the source of the Niger.

Armed with €1,700 (£1,140), a camera and video camcorder, his aim was to record his own personal documentary on how Africa has changed in the past 200 years through the eyes of a lone British traveller. But, after almost a year, nothing has been heard from the adventurer.

Despite a rescue operation organised by friends and family - with the aid of a former Army officer, who spent five weeks in Africa last year, and Michael Brook, a former Scotland Yard officer working for Interpol - he has not been found.

Vicky Paterson, 28, Mr Velten's friend, said: "We are hoping the officers from Sussex police will be able to go out there sooner rather than later, possibly next month. The Mali police have been very co-operative, and want to find Chris as much as we do."

A spokesman for Sussex Police said last night that officers would travel West Africa and lend their support to the investigation as soon as a formal request had been made. He said: "We are currently awaiting confirmation of an invite from the Mali authorities to send two senior officers to the West African country to assist in this missing person investigation," he said. "When the officers receive such an invite they are expected to help raise the profile of his disappearance and offer some forensic support."

Searchers have been able to discover that Mr Velten, who made his last telephone call home from Kita - a small tourist town in west Mali - on 23 March, was seen alive and well on 9 April in a nearby village called Kati.

He is then known to have set out to Bamako, the Malian capital, and then on to Segou, where he was expected to hire a dugout canoe to navigate the river Niger as far as the desert city of Timbuktu. From there, the idea was to travel either by river or on foot to Niger before flying home.

The 4,000km journey was to take Mr Velten across the Sahara desert, through scrubland and rainforest, past numerous rural villages and in to contact with ancient nomadic tribes and wild animals - including crocodiles, hyenas and hippos - and possibly even bandits.

Although there have been a number of sightings of a lone white man in the region around Timbuktu and Segou, Mr Velten's friends fear he never made it beyond Bamako.

Mungo Park, from Foulshiels, Selkirk, was the first British explorer to venture into the interior of West Africa and extend the boundaries of African exploration.

During his epic journey in 1795, the Scot was captured and imprisoned for four months by the Moors until he escaped with nothing but a pocket compass, a horse and the clothes he was wearing.

He was killed during a second expedition in 1805, when he drowned aged 34 in what is now Nigeria.