William takes a break from wedding preparations to visit earthquake-hit Christchurch

17 MARCH 2011

With just over a month to go until the royal wedding, there are no doubt many loose ends to tie up.

But Prince William took time out from his preparations to visit earthquake-ravaged Christchurch during a five-day tour of Australia and New Zealand.

The royal - who enjoyed a traditional Maori nose-rub or Hongi welcome - walked through the rubble to witness first-hand the stricken New Zealand city.

And he was visibly shocked at the extent of the destruction, deeming the damage to the city "unbelievable".

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"It's just so sad," the Prince said as he observed teetering buildings in the city centre, the after-effects of the February 22 6.3-magnitude tremor.

"The scale of it is unbelievable. It's really brought it home for me."

The 28-year-old spent most of the visit talking to members of the USAR - Urban Search and Rescue - teams that combed the city's fallen buildings for survivors and retrieved bodies from the debris.

He offered heartfelt thanks to the workers for their efforts.

"I wanted to say thank you, you have done a tremendous job," he said. "It has got to have been a horrible few weeks for you.

"You have done fantastically well, it could have been a lot worse without your professionalism."

The Prince heard personal stories, meeting national USAR manager Steve Barclay, who had been told his house is condemned.

Looking deeply sympathetic, the Prince said: "I'm so sorry, that's very sad."

 

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He then met USAR Logistics Manager Shane O'Brien and his seven-year-old twin daughters.

With his usual ease, he patted the girls' heads and asked: "Who are these lovely girls? Are you looking after your dad?"

Wearing a brown blazer, blue checked shirt and beige chinos, William looked relaxed throughout the tour.

And his informal style rubbed off on those around him, with many of the men calling him "mate" and "boss".

He even managed to lighten the atmosphere while posing for a photograph wearing a hat belonging to one the USAR workers which he joked "smelled a bit dodge."

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And earlier, he shared a laugh with five women whose job is to install mobile lavatories in hundreds of stricken homes without running water.

With a grin on his face, the Prince told the ladies: "It's a dirty job, but I suppose someone's got to do it."

But laughter aside, it was evident that New Zealand holds a place in William's heart.

Referring to his own experiences as a helicopter pilot, he said that he had watched the unfolding crisis from the UK and had wanted to help.

"There were a lot of us who work in the military who were gnashing their teeth to come out here," he said.

This was his fourth visit to New Zealand and he told one team member: "I love New Zealand and I'm glad to be back."

The earthquake that hit Christchurch killed around 180 people and flattened much of the city. It has been described as New Zealand's 'darkest day'.

After Christchurch, William travelled to Greymouth to meet families of the 29 victims of the Pike River mine disaster.

His five-day trip will take on a tour of disaster-stricken areas in Australia and New Zealand,

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