THE family of a man who went missing 13 years ago believe he may be alive after a photograph of him was spotted on Facebook.
Christian Velten, of Brighton, travelled to Africa to retrace the steps of legendary 19th century Scottish explorer Mungo Park, in 2003.
But 13 years to the day tomorrow, the then 27 year old went missing in Mali.
After years of silence his sister Hannah came across the first clue that he is still alive in more than a decade.
A picture of her brother is believed to have been used on the Facebook profile of someone trying to make contact with a conservationist in Kenya who went to the same school as Hannah and Christian.
She believes that her bother may have downloaded the picture after she put it on her blog.
She said: "I posted the picture on Facebook and people started sharing it.
"Then this woman who went to the same primary school said that she recognised the picture of him holding the snake.
"That picture had been on his computer at home. It had never been on the internet before I posted it on a family blog in 2014.
"It hadn't been used on social media.
"Nobody else that I can think of would have any cause to keep that picture."
He had been travelling alone, following in the footsteps of Mungo Park, who was attacked by natives and drowned while in Africa in 1806.
Christian had been travelling mainly on foot, following the path of the river Niger.
On March 23, 2003, he called his parents Tim and Pauline to wish them happy birthdays.
It was the last time they heard from him.
Despite searches by local police, private investigators hired by his parents and a team of Sussex Police detectives in 2004, there is still no sign of what happened to Christian.
Hannah, 41, said: "We can't grieve, we are in limbo. It is hell.
"I coped by thinking he had probably died, that's how I got through my wedding and the births of my children without him there.
"But then last year I was speaking to mum and she's always had hope that he is going to come back, so I thought I shouldn't give up hope."
His family believe he could have been attacked by animals or robbers.
They have also considered he could have suffered malaria, memory loss and all manner of other illnesses in the years that have passed.
Hannah said: "He might have thought he couldn't possibly come back after all this time.
"But if he knows we love him and want him back, and we want him back in our lives. Hopefully now will be the time he makes contact.
"It has given us a new impetus. It's the first glimmer of hope in a long time "I think if he doesn't come back now we have to say he is not going to come back. This is our last big push."
LOVED ONES LEFT WAITING FOR CALL THAT NEVER COMES
SILVER framed pictures sit on a small mahogany table in the Veltens’ front room.
A small boy looks across the room from an oval frame on the wall.
Pictures show him as a baby and a young man enjoying partying with friends.
But while the pictures of his sister continue into her adult years, her wedding, her children, Christian Velten is frozen in time.
His mother Pauline remembers him as the 27-year-old man who bounded off on an adventure never to be seen again.
She cannot imagine the 40-year-old he could have become.
Tomorrow the family will mark the anniversary of the last time he called home.
But in the 13 years that have passed, Pauline, now 76, has not been able to hear a phone ring without thinking it might be her only son.
Even when Christian was a small boy, his mother had a sense of foreboding that something was going to happen to him.
Speaking to The Argus yesterday, she said: “You have to shut it away or it takes over your whole mind.
“I have to put it in a box in my mind.”
In the 13 years that have passed she does not go a day without thinking about her boy.
Christian was an experienced traveller and spent six months meticulously planning his trip.
Pauline said: “When he went away I couldn’t cope any more.
“Tim took more notice of his planning than I did because I was just fed up of hearing about it.
“The day he left I said ‘just be careful’ and he said ‘Mum don’t worry, I know what I’m doing.’
“Ever since he was five years old, I always had a feeling something was going to happen to him.
“When he had these crazy ideas I knew there was no way of stopping him going if he wanted to.
“He was huge fun. When he came in the room, everyone cheered up.
“He was a fantastic person to have around. He had such charisma.”
When Christian disappeared, dressage rider Pauline was unable to keep riding competitively.
“I couldn’t concentrate,” she said. “I couldn’t keep my mind on the competition,” she said.
Christian never had a bedroom at the couple’s home near Hailsham.
They were in the process of moving from Christian and Hannah’s childhood home in Burwash to their current Hailsham home at the time he disappeared.
Christian had been living in Brighton, working at the Western Front pub in Cranbourne Street before setting off on his expedition.
Pauline said it is easier not having to see Christian’s bedroom and all his personal belongings.
Even though he would not know their address, she is confident he would be able to track them down or make contact with other family members.
Pauline channels her time to think about her son in a special place in her mind.
“I have to shut it away in a box and try to get on with life,” she said.
“Every day I open that lid and think about it, but then I need to close the lid again.
“For five years we tried everything we could, trying every way possible to trace him, but nothing was ever found.”
Pauline has to construct a series of grim possibilities in her mind about what could have happened to her son. “I think he was probably attacked and robbed, maybe he lost his memory.
“He would have run out of medication for malaria.
“There are so many things that could have happened but I have to believe he’s still alive because there’s never been anything to suggest otherwise.
“You just have to cope and life has to go on and you have to keep busy.
“Because we’ve never had a body to bury or anything like a memorial service, we have never had anything to get together and remember him.”
Last year his sister Hannah organised a party for what what would have been his 40th birthday.
Almost 100 of his friends and family attended, many with children he has never had the chance to meet.
Christian’s father Tim, 78, said: “We can never give up hope.”