Image of the December 2021 Wilderness Magazine Cover Read more from the
December 2021 Issue
Home / Articles / See more

See more… Greek legend

Sisyphus Peak (left) and Fastness (centre) above Ruth Flat, East Mātukituki Valley. Photo: Shaun Barnett/Black Robin Photography

Archers, warriors, victory and defeat, heaven and hell abound in New Zealand’s backcountry.

Over millennia, the Greeks developed a complex array of myths and stories that feature powerful and vain gods, strange hybrid creatures and dauntless heroes, the language of which has infiltrated many parts of the world – even the backcountry of Aotearoa. Listening to Stephen Fry’s re-telling of these legends in his recent books Mythos, Heroes and Troy set me to wondering just how many of these fabled names feature in our mountains.

To name but a few: Fiordland has Acheron Passage, Sphinx Lake, and Lake Pan. Rakiura has Port Pegasus, named after the famous winged horse. The West Coast has the Cerberus Glacier (hound of Hades), while Mt Olympus (home of the gods) is an area of unusual rock outcrops in Kahurangi National Park. Castor and Pollux (twin half-brothers) are two shapely mountains rising above Top Forks Hut in the Wilkin Valley of Mt Aspiring National Park. Pyramus Peak rises at the head of Godley Glacier, while the Thisbe River flows in the Catlins. Pyramus and Thisbe were two doomed lovers.

Here are five locations with names from Greek myth that might appeal to trampers. 

1. Pillars of Hercules, Kaimanawa Forest Park

Hercules (Heracles in the original Greek), was one of the great heroes: an athlete of prodigious strength and eruptive rage. After being maddened to kill his own wife and children by a jealous Olympic god, Heracles had to atone by completing 12 impossible tasks. Completing one of these tasks resulted in the formation of two pillars, which straddle the narrowest part of the Mediterranean Sea. We have our modest version at a ravine in the Tongariro River, on the edge of Kaimanawa Forest Park, where there is a campsite and walking track.

2. Apollo Creek, Kahurangi National Park

One of the twelve gods of Olympus, Apollo is famed for his skill as an archer, healer and foreteller. It was the arrow of Apollo that killed Achilles, the hero of the siege of Troy, by striking him in his one vulnerable part, the heel. Trampers enjoying the Leslie-Karamea tramp will notice many names with Greek or Roman origins, including Apollo, Atlas, Venus and Mars creeks.

3. Styx River, West Coast

The Styx is one of the rivers in Hades (hell), and means ‘shuddering’ or loathing of death. Thetis, mother of Achilles, dipped him in the Styx River to make him invincible, but where she held him by the heel, he was left vulnerable. Trampers tackling the Styx River have to negotiate some troublesome slips, which may be a pain in the foot, but once at Grassy Flats Hut, can enjoy the grand country that leads up to Nōti Raureka/Browning Pass, on the well-known Three Passes trip.

4. Two Thumb Range, Te Kahui Kaupeka Conservation Park, Canterbury

Perhaps the greatest concentration of Grecian names lies on the Two Thumb Range, above North East Gorge Stream, a tributary of the Macaulay River. Here are Achilles (2540m), Myrmidon (2474m), Iliad Basin, Tantalus, Odyssey Basin, Athene Col, and Cassandra Col. Access up the Macaulay begins from Lilybank Road, near the head of Lake Tekapo/Takapō. Macaulay Hut sleeps 14.

5. Sisyphus Peak, Mt Aspiring National Park

One of the greatest Greek myths is that of King Sisyphus, who dared to cheat death, and managed it twice. So Hades, god of the underworld, tempted Sisyphus with a task – to roll an enormous boulder up a steep slope. Upon success, Sisyphus would gain eternal life. Sisyphus almost managed but just before reaching the summit, his strength failed and the boulder rolled back down. He’s doomed to repeat this impossible labour forever.

Sisyphus Peak (1859m) rises in the East Mātukituki Valley. Although not overly steep when approached from Aspiring Flats, lugging a full pack up there does require a certain amount of Sisyphean effort. Once, when traversing the peak to reach Ruth Flat, one of my companions lowered her pack down a steep section, but it rolled off and catapulted all the way to the valley floor. Fortunately, we could just follow it down and, unlike Sisyphus, enjoy a rest at camp.