Rescue mission launched for missing adventurer

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The Independent Online

In the best traditions of British explorers, Christian Velten warned his friends and family that he might be gone for some time when he set out to cross west Africa by foot, donkey and a dugout canoe on the trail of an 18th-century adventurer.

The 28-year-old zoology graduate from East Sussex had always yearned for excitement, travel and adventure in unexplored and exotic destinations. His fascination with the world and its creatures was matched only by his interest in the achievements of past explorers who opened up new frontiers.

In an attempt to emulate his heroes he decided on a five-month solo expedition following the route of the explorer Mungo Park to the source of the Niger, armed with £1,700 in euros, a still camera and video camcorder. He intended to make a documentary on how Africa has changed in the past 200 years through the eyes of a lone British traveller.

Now, seven months after he left London and six months since he was last heard from, a rescue operation, organised by friends and family, will today begin retracing his steps.

Mr Velten, a former Edinburgh University student, aimed to follow Park's route from Gambia through Mali, Niger and on to Nigeria.

Park, from Foulshiels, Selkirk, set off into the unknown in 1795 to become the first British explorer to venture into the interior of west Africa and extend the boundaries of African exploration.

During his epic journey Park was captured and imprisoned for four months by the Moors. He escaped, with nothing but a pocket compass, a horse and the clothes he stood in.

Park continued his quest to find the river, and drowned at the age of 34 in what is now Nigeria on a second expedition in 1805, aged 34.

Mr Velten's 2,500-mile journey was meant to take him across the Sahara desert, through scrubland and rainforest, staying at villages along the way. Anticipated encounters with ancient nomadic tribes, the rich diversity of animal life including crocodiles, hyenas and hippos, and the added danger from bandits made the trip even more attractive to the modern-day adventurer.

The former Charterhouse school pupil was regarded as the type of man who "gets a buzz surviving hardship". He spent a year in Australia before going to university and then, after graduation in 1998, spent two years exploring the islands of the eastern Caribbean and living with the islanders.

For more than six months he meticulously planned the trip, spending hours in the library of the Natural History Museum in London, studying the flora and fauna he expected to encounter.

However a few hundred kilometres and six weeks after he set off from Senegal, he vanished without trace.

He had phoned home on 23 March, and was last seen alive and well on 9 April in a village called Kati in Mali.

His friend Vicky Paterson, a co-ordinator of the rescue operation, said: "He can't have just disappeared. Somebody, somewhere must know what has happened to him. We have been working with the local police and the Foreign Office for weeks, but as yet we have had little to go on except for a short four-minute phone call that Chris made to us on 23 March from Kita, in the west of Mali.

"He is someone who could rely on himself. He's a well-balanced, level-headed bloke who knew what he was up against and had the mental strength to deal with it.

"He's not the type to panic and would take things in his stride, so we are hoping that if we can retrace his steps and talk to everybody who might be in a position to help us find him," said Ms Paterson, an editor at the Natural History Museum in London.

Since August the Foreign Office has been in touch with the governments of Mali, Niger and Nigeria, along with the British and French consulates and embassies in the region, while friends have been making contact with the International Committee of the Red Cross and aid organisations operating in the area. So far nobody has reported seeing a young white man with a camera.

Another of Mr Velten's friends, Sam Rice-Edwards, and a former soldier who prefers to remain anonymous arrived in Mali yesterday to begin a search, with little to go on except Mr Velten's route plan.