THE taxi driver in that laconic tone which is the hallmark of any Kiwi enjoying a good joke, said: ''Queenstown has got about 100 different ways to scare the pants off you''. He was right. New Zealand's ski capital in the South Island does not stop at downhill, moguls and jumps. Year round, visitors are invited to throw themselves from a bridge, a plane or off the side of a mountain, attached only to a modest assortment of gravity-arresting equipment. On the raging waters of the Shotover River - closer to the earth's surface but not necessarily much safer - there are jet boats which scream towards cliffs at 70 kilometres an hour, and a 170-metre tunnel to be negotiated by raft. Pilots in biplanes and helicopters itch to demonstrate that flying is as lunatic a proposition as when Daedalus and Icarus launched themselves skyward. And if one of these entertainments is insufficient, try the Awesome Foursome - a roller-coaster helicopter flip to Deep Creek, followed by a jet boat ride to Skippers Bridge, a 70 m bungy jump and a rafting trip culminating in the darkened, roaring clamour of the Oxenbridge Tunnel. Three hundred and thirty wet, wild minutes. Queenstown, arguably the action sports capital of the southern hemisphere, kicks into overdrive for the Mount Cook Winter Festival, when good powder is only part of the attraction. Towards the top of Coronet Peak, an attractive woman stands holding NZ$5,000 (HK$21,200) in cash, while a bunch of young bloods ski from mountain top to bottom and then scramble up again as best they can in a gruelling no-holds-barred race for both moolah and maiden. Down in the town, a gaggle of transvestites is lolloping an obstacle course to hysterical shrieks of encouragement from the crowd. Any resemblance by the contestants to Queenstown's top hotel managers is totally coincidental. Other sporting heroes are doing their best to play a decent game of cricket on a pitch covered in snow, or fly across Lake Wakatipu in home-made contraptions that rarely make it beyond the end of the pier. Better still is the horizontal bungy jump, as contestants try to grab a can of beer from between the Festival Snow Queen's clenched thighs, their progress arrested by an elastic rope around their waist whose farthest stretch is a couple of centimetres away from the ring-pull. Events are not limited to humans, as the Dog Derby demonstrates. Described as ''a novel race up and down the mountain'' it is novel for dogs used to working on their own for most of the year to be confronted with a profusion of canine companions. The shepherds are allowed ample access to the race sponsor's product and the drunken, whistling, yelping stampede which ensues is probably the best entertainment since the Circus Maximus closed down. Its only rival is the Dog Barking competition, a sort of Eurovision Song Contest for aspiring pooches, but possibly rather easier on the ear. At night, Queenstown revs up another notch, with sumo wrestling, a Mardi Gras street carnival (albeit with the thermometer below zero), oompah bands, body painting and a Saturday Night Ball that is a must for anyone who does not want to be - as the saying goes - socially dead in the water. For those to whom piste is a day-time activity, the slopes beckon at Coronet Peak and the Remarkables. The two ranges - in easy striking distance of town - boast a combined skiable area of 500 hectares. And with the peaks a little below 2,000 m, snow is practically guaranteed from early June to the end of October. A variety of brown, black and blue runs spell a good balance of downhills for advanced and intermediate skiers. There are gentler inclines for those who spend more time sitting down than standing up. Double and triple chair lifts keep queues down to an acceptable minimum, while a polyglot bunch of instructors can teach the best ways to get back to the bottom again. The ski gear on hire is modern, and the kitting out operation swift and efficient. It is only a matter of minutes from the bus to the sharp exhilaration of cutting through crystal on newly waxed skis. Bigger and better thrills are higher up the hill. The loneliness of the long distance heli-skier is a joy which has few equals, and thanks to newly developed equipment and advanced technology it is a superior form of sport now available to low intermediate skiers and the all-conquering powderhounds. Helicopters complete the journey to the highest, remotest slopes and after they whirl away an unblemished alpine sea awaits, begging for exploration. Beyond Queenstown lies the Harris Mountains, with 350 ski runs over 2,000 square kilometres covering 180 peaks in six mountain ranges. The skiing is over pure snow with not a tree in sight in sheltered basins and on open mountain flanks, with a vertical drop varying from 600 m to 1,200 m. Groups of up to 10 skiers are led by a guide trained in avalanche hazard evaluation and other safety techniques. With a minimum of three runs a day, this is the ultimate New Zealand skiing experience. With boots off and gear hung up to dry, there is time to sample Queenstown's restorative powers. Hearty food and something to wash it down with is the staple of a number of entertainments on offer, from a Mexican bar to a Swiss igloo, romping, stomping pubs and quiet health conscious cafes. Apart from the home-cooked menus, there is an amicable ambience. The barman or waitress has probably been out paragliding or bungy jumping that morning, and will join in an exchange of thrills. One of the most attractive points about Queenstown is the people who live here like to see others having fun, and are quite content that this is their livelihood as well. Nobody shows off either. ''It's cool to bungy jump,'' says Ricky the dispatcher, as he completes the ties around a pair of ankles as nervy as the rest of the body. ''And if you don't feel up to it, it's cool not to.'' The festival, while faultlessly and professionally organised, has the same laid-back feel. The Snow Queen has not quite had her roots bleached, everybody knows all the transvestites in their more usual guise as managing directors, and the atmosphere is akin to a village fete. And in Queenstown, where the thrills and spills on offer are unparalleled, that is half the fun. How to get there Air New Zealand flies from Hong Kong twice a week. Skiing trips to Queenstown start from $9,688 for seven days. Phone P & O on 543-3878 or fax 851-9661.