New Caledonia tourists 'ecstatic' as rescue planes arrive

Smoke rises in the distance as roadblocks are seen near the Montravel area of Noumea, capital of France's Pacific territory of New Caledonia (Theo Rouby)
Smoke rises in the distance as roadblocks are seen near the Montravel area of Noumea, capital of France's Pacific territory of New Caledonia (Theo Rouby)

Tourists trapped by rioting, looting and separatist roadblocks in crisis-wracked New Caledonia expressed joy that they may soon be rescued after the first military evacuation flights landed on Tuesday.

For the last week, Australian tourist Maxwell Winchester and his wife Tiffany have been barricaded into a normally idyllic hill resort outside the capital Noumea.

As gunfire rattled down the valley and smoke spewed from nearby towns, they faced a fearful wait for help as supplies of food slowly dwindled.

"Every night, we had to sleep with one eye open," Winchester told AFP. "Every noise, we were worried that they were coming in to loot us."

For days, they monitored the latest news -- which brought alarming reports of six dead and hundreds injured -- while struggling to get help from Australian consular staff.

Winchester received word around lunchtime Tuesday that Australia was finally sending two military evacuation planes.

"We are ecstatic," he said, even though the couple believe they may not be among the first evacuees.

More than 3,000 people are estimated to have been stranded by a week of unrest that has shuttered the Pacific archipelago's main international airport.

It is not known how many of those are tourists on holiday and how many are Caledonians stuck outside the islands.

But Australia has estimated at least 300 of its nationals have registered for rescue.

For those hundreds, the sight of a Royal Australian Air Force C130 Hercules landing at the city's Magenta airport on Tuesday will have brought overwhelming relief.

A New Zealand Defence Force plane is also in the air, dispatched to pick up about "50 passengers with the most pressing needs", according to Foreign Minister Winston Peters.

"In cooperation with France and Australia, we are working on subsequent flights in coming days," he said.

Winchester was sanguine about not being part of the first evacuees.

"We realise we probably won't get on these flights because those who have higher needs will get on them," he said.

"But we at least know we have a way out in the next few days."

Still, for some, there will be an uneasy wait.

Australian tourists Meg Soutar and Caroline Tully were on a girls' trip to the remote west coast of New Caledonia.

They were unable to get to the airport for the evacuation flights on Tuesday, as their route would pass through some of the areas worst affected by the unrest.

For now, the women are staying put and hope they can get home to Brisbane soon. They have had very limited information or assistance from officials.

"We literally stay by the phone and WIFI to see what is going on," Soutar told AFP. "We feel very isolated, we are not in a resort, it’s just us."

"It's been nine days since the conflict started and we are no closer to getting home," she said.