Christchurch - Prince William expressed shock at the devastation in earthquake-hit Christchurch on Thursday after walking amid the rubble of the stricken New Zealand city to see the damage first hand.
“It's just so sad,” the prince said as he surveyed the city centre, which was razed in last month's 6.3-magnitude tremor, adding “the scale of it is unbelievable”.
The prince, travelling without his bride-to-be Kate Middleton, was confronted with the sight of office blocks and shops that collapsed when the February 22 quake killed about 180 people and flattened much of the city.
The trip to Christchurch, which has been rocked by constant aftershocks since the February 22 quake, was the first stop on a five-day tour of disaster-stricken areas of New Zealand and Australia.
St James' Palace has described the trip as a way for the royals to show support for people in both countries struggling to recover from recent disasters.
Christchurch resident James Sykes said locals in New Zealand's second largest city appreciated the gesture.
“I'm not what you would call a royalist but I'm just glad that someone in his shoes decided to come down here,” Sykes said. “It shows solidarity with the people.”
Appearing relaxed and in good spirits after touching down at Christchurch airport, the Prince paused to hold an onlooker's baby and smiled as one woman yelled out: “Thank you so much for coming to Christchurch.”
But the mood became more sombre when the 28-year-old arrived in the city centre, the area worst hit in the disaster.
He was guided into Christchurch's “red zone”, which is still closed to the public because of the danger from damaged buildings, including the city's landmark cathedral, reduced to rubble-strewn shell in the disaster.
It was a stark contrast to the Prince's last visit to Christchurch in 2005 during a rugby union tour by the British and Irish Lions.
In a cruel twist of fate, Christchurch residents learned only a day before Prince William's arrival that the city had been stripped of its matches for this year's Rugby World Cup because the damage to the city is so extensive.
The prince toured civil defence headquarters, where emergency crews have been working around the clock to help Christchurch recover since the disaster.
Dressed in a black jacket, open-necked blue shirt and tan trousers, he mingled with overall-clad emergency workers, thanking them for their efforts over the past month.
Later Thursday, Prince William will visit Greymouth, on the South Island's rugged West Coast, where 29 miners died late last year when a gas explosion tore through the Pike River colliery.
He is scheduled to hold a private meeting with the grieving families of the miners, whose bodies are still entombed in the sealed-off pit, which remains too dangerous to enter.
He will also represent Queen Elizabeth II at a national memorial for earthquake victims in Christchurch on Friday before departing for Australia on Saturday morning.
While there, he will visit areas of Queensland and Victoria damaged in recent floods and cyclones.
He is travelling without Middleton, whom he will marry on April 29, because his visit is classed as an official royal tour.
Queen Elizabeth II is the official head of state of New Zealand and Australia, which are both former British colonies and members of the Commonwealth. - Sapa-AFP