SYDNEY – Prince William was on Tuesday welcomed to Australia by an Aboriginal elder daubed in body paint and bearing smouldering gum leaves, on his first visit since he came here as a baby 27 years ago.
Up to 2,000 cheering fans in a poor inner-city Aboriginal neighbourhood in Sydney greeted the prince, 27, who last visited the country in the arms of his late mother, Princess Diana, when he was just nine months old in 1983.
Indigenous leaders, wearing red loincloths -- one clutching a boomerang, another a didgeridoo and a third wearing a possum skin -- treated the second-in-line to the throne to a traditional "smoking ceremony" to welcome him to the continent.
"We're over the moon that he's come to this part of the city to spend time with us," said Aboriginal Australian Lewis Kelly who went to Sydney's run-down Redfern area to see the visiting royal.
"I was surprised when I heard it on the grapevine that he was coming here to see the indigenous people, the real Australians."
Well-wishers in the mostly-indigenous crowd cheered and clapped after the prince arrived, while some people held up pictures of his mother.
Virginia Hickey, a relative of 17-year-old TJ Hickey, whose 2004 death while being pursued by police in Redfern sparked a racially-tinged riot, said William's visit to the area was a way of "mixing black and white".
"It may bridge the gap," she told AFP as she waited for a glimpse of the prince. "It might help ease our pain as Aborigines."
In a meeting with Aboriginal elders, William was presented with a 1937 petition to King George VI asking for a treaty and also asked for help in finding and returning the head of indigenous warrior Pemulwuy.
Pemulwuy, who opposed British settlers and was shot dead in 1802, was decapitated after death and his head is believed to have been placed in a jar and sent to England. Its location is unknown.
"I said Pemulwuy was a mighty Aboriginal warrior. It's part of our history and a lot of our history is not acknowledged," elder Marlene Cummins said.
"He was really interested. When he talks to you, he really talks and when he listens, he really listens. That's what I love about this boy."
William, who requested the three-day unofficial visit to get to know Australia, flew into Sydney after an official visit to New Zealand where he represented his grandmother Queen Elizabeth II for the first time.
After stepping off a New Zealand air force jet, he was whisked off to meet the queen's representative in Australia, Governor General Quentin Bryce at her harbour-side mansion.
During a tour of the grounds, the prince described the view of Sydney's famed Opera House and Harbour Bridge as "thrilling", and waved to stunned passengers on a passing ferry.
He and Bryce were joined for lunch by 20 prominent young Australians, including cricketer Michael Clarke, Olympic diver Matthew Mitcham and Wallabies skipper Rocky Elsom.
The prince's tour comes as a poll revealed the majority of Australians, who in 1999 voted against a model to become a republic, would prefer William to be their next king instead of his father Prince Charles.
The survey for television channel ITV News found 58 percent of those interviewed thought William should be the next monarch compared with 30 percent for Charles.
In Redfern, where the crowds stood for hours in the hot midday sun to see the prince, many said William reminded them of Diana.
"He's like his mother," said Mary Silva. "He's a lovely person, isn't he? He wasn't a bit frightened to come here. I mean, what a place to come!"
But the prince, after visiting a hospital in Wellington earlier Tuesday, dismissed any comparisons with Diana.
"I wouldn't say I'm anywhere near her level. She had a fantastic affinity with kids, and with everyone. I just go and meet people and enjoy their company. I like meeting people, so it helps," he told reporters.
William will visit bushfire-ravaged areas near Melbourne on Thursday before returning home the following day.