Be an extreme sport in Queenstown

It takes a certain kind of lunatic to take two high-speed, dangerous extreme sports and combine them into an even crazier activity. In Queenstown, New Zealand, it seems, there are plenty of lunatics to go around.

Such was the spectacle at the 'mountain bikes on snow' event on Saturday at the Coronet Peak ski resort, where cyclists took a once-a-year opportunity to combine downhill skiing with off-road biking and race their (unmodified) bicycles down the ski slopes.

There were thrills and spills a plenty as the riders tore down a course normally reserved for skilled skiers and snowboarders, all the while trying their hardest to keep their bikes upright.

It was just one of the dozens of events taking place in the world's adventure capital this week as part of the city's annual Winter Festival: a week-long party that combines big-scale events with the sort of quaint community activities more typically associated with small towns.

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key (who is also Tourism Minister) launched the festival on Friday night with an outdoor party and fireworks display on the banks of Lake Wakatipu.

The party continued late into the night as the extreme sport guysnand girls bar-hopped their way around the town's multitude of watering holes (Queenstown reportedly has one bar for every 75 people).

Typical of a town where things are taken to the extreme, even the community events associated with the festival put participants to the test. Like Melbourne's Moomba, the Winter Festival features a birdman rally, with contestants donning home-made wings, and other items supposedly designed to increase their aerodynamics, before leaping from a pier. The extreme element? The near-naked participants plunge into the icy waters of Lake Wakatipu, where rescue crews pull them out before their muscles seize up and they sink to the bottom.

Shortly after, prominent members of the Queenstown community take part in the annual 'drag race', which, of course, does not involves cars but cross-dressing men, who race around an obstacle course in heels.

More than 60,000 people attend the festival, most of them young and many of them (the majority of visitors) Australian. New Zealand's tourism industry is pinning its hopes on attracting more Australians, who already constitute the country's biggest market, as the economic downturn sees visitor numbers from further afield dropping.

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The focus appears to be paying off, with New Zealand reaching a record 1 million visitors from Australia in the 12 months leading up to May. The destination has been boosted an increased marketing spend and by the air fare war on the trans-Tasman route, which has seen fares plummet to their lowest levels in 20 years.

The party in Queenstown continues until next Sunday with events such as the Mardi Gras party and street parade and a final night of celebration at the Coronet Peak ski field. On Monday, Flight of the Conchords star Rhys Darby came to town for the festival's comedy debate, creating a sell-out event.

The last event added to the program was determined by popular vote. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the people voted for the 'Undy 500' race: another opportunity for participants to strip off in public in the extreme cold.

Craig Platt travelled as a guest of Tourism New Zealand and Destination Queenstown.

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