Photograph of Tram Ton Pass in Vietnam, by Richard Curran.
Rob Curran’s profile of Jamie Taggart will appear in the Believer’s summer issue.
Scottish botanist Jamie Taggart, who went missing on October 31, 2013 while exploring for plants in Northern Vietnam, has finally come home to rest.
In mid-December, a local farmer found Jamie’s remains at the foot of a waterfall on the outskirts of the Hoang Lien national park. A Vietnamese investigation revealed that Jamie had fallen to his death while scaling the waterfall. The mountainside was a four-hour hike from the place where Jamie was last seen, walking along a road near the entrance to the national park, heading toward the Tram Ton pass.
Jamie’s family has borne his disappearance and the prolonged repatriation process with a quiet, almost oaken strength. Jamie’s mother, Jill Mary, spoke to me from her home in England, saying, “It’s good to know what happened, but it’s hard to bear.”
Last March, I met Jill Mary in Sa Pa, and, together, we tried to find out what had happened to her son. Hoang Lien park is home to the highest mountain in Vietnam, Fan Si Pan, as well as—thanks to quirks of geography—a host of plant species so distinct from their relatives elsewhere that they are still being cataloged. The 2013 trip was Jamie’s second to the park, and his first solo expedition. Jamie had planned to spend a month in the area, where he hoped to identify some of the rare species, and to discover a new plant or flower.
While we were in Sa Pa, my brother Rich and I were taken to the upper slopes of Fan Si Pan—a few hours’ hiking from the place where Jamie was found—by a local guide and self-taught botanist, Uoc Le Huu. My brother and I, novice hikers, stood on the ridge and thought only of the danger in the ravines around us. Uoc thought only of the lilies and primroses that might grow there.
We were told that search parties had concentrated their efforts on areas closer to the road, because they did not believe that anyone would brave the rocky terrain with the scant supplies Jamie had brought with him from Sa Pa. But they did not know Jamie Taggart. Jamie was devoted to plants; he was also an experienced and fearless climber. For many years Jamie lovingly curated the Linn Botanic Gardens on the western coast of Scotland, a place burgeoning with flora in a way that recalls Sa Pa.
Jamie succeeded his father in the role. Jim Taggart, who is himself an accomplished botanist, still lives in the Victorian villa that he acquired and restored with the gardens in 1971, around the time of Jamie’s birth. Jamie had an older brother, an older sister, and many close friends, both in the Cove area and in the botany community. He even knew the undertaker, James Auld, who made the arrangements for the funeral, which was due to take place today.
In a world where many discoveries take the form of abstract pixels, and where expeditions are reserved for large teams of specialists, Jamie Taggart died in an act of daring solo exploration reminiscent of the Victorians who built the Linn.
Jamie’s death may draw attention to the planned development of the Fan Si Pan area, and the need to preserve its botanical riches. The wilderness may have taken Jamie Taggart for two long years, but he would never wish to see that wilderness taken away. As Jim Taggart put it: “He was where he wanted to be.”
Rob Curran is a writer based in Denton, Texas