Construction has just started on the long-awaited network of Wollongong mountain bike trails hailed as a tourism game-changer for the Illawarra.
As predicted by the Mercury last month, contractors broke the first soil and started digging at a site off a bush trail at Mt Kembla on Thursday, with NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service staff on hand to manage the work.
Planning has been underway since 2015 for the long-awaited network which would incorporate, and replace, "unsanctioned" trails which have been built and maintained by mountain bike enthusiasts over the years.
Minister for the Illawarra Ryan Park said the project would have important benefits for the environment as well as for riders near and far.
"The Illawarra Escarpment Mountain Bike Network is a win for riders and nature-lovers," he said.
"By creating this network, we are taking riders through bushland, over ridges and down gullies, fostering riders' appreciation of the natural beauty and significant cultural values of this area."
"This is a great example of how we can balance conservation with recreation to create exceptional nature-based experiences in our national parks and reserves."
Wollongong's mountain bike network will consist of two stages - one around Mount Kembla heading towards Mount Keira, and one above Balgownie.
The second network of trails, above Balgownie, is still in the later stages of the planning approval process.
Mr Park talked up the tourism opportunities the tracks would deliver.
"This is an important milestone for this project, a project that will deliver safe and sustainable tourism opportunities in a much-loved conservation area," he said.
"The tracks will be built to showcase the extraordinary beauty of the Illawarra and drive nature-based tourism to this corner of the world.
"The Escarpment is a brilliant backdrop to what will be an exceptional network for riders of all ages and abilities for many years to come."
The Mount Kembla trails would continue to three main end points downhill - one near the Windy Gully car park, one near Kirkwood Place, and one near the Mount Keira Rural Fire Service base on Mt Keira Rd.
Contractor Synergy Trails has been involved in many walking and riding trail projects, including mountain bike networks at Hornsby, the Blue Mountains and Glenworth Valley.
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.