tyranny of distance
Tyranny of Distance is an encounter with the far-flung community of Coober Pedy, a small town in the Australian Outback where geographic isolation and environmental factors have shaped an unusual way of life. To combat withering summer temperatures, which can range from 35 - 45 degrees Celsius in the shade, the majority of its inhabitants live underground, in subterranean houses carved from the sandstone. While the town owes its name to these dugouts (“Kupa-piti” translates to “white man’s hole” in the local indigenous language), it owes its existence almost exclusively to opal; the gemstone was discovered here by chance a hundred years ago and has since made this town of 1700 inhabitants the Opal Capital of the World.
The 60s and 70s saw an influx of immigrants from more than 45 different nationalities rush to the area to try their hand at opal extraction, often by independent means and homegrown innovation. Many have remained, some eeking out a living with what can be as small as one-man operations. Because corporations have been shut out of the game in Coober Pedy, its mining industry has remained somewhat maverick. There are stories of creative extraction techniques, mining enterprises based entirely on self-made machinery, and as with any mining town, there are the stories of boom and bust. There’s a miner, for instance, who made a half million dollars in two weeks after hitting a pocket of opal only to find his pockets empty less than a year later. His fortune spent on women and booze, the rest lost to gambling.
Now celebrating its centennial, this remarkably diverse town is at a critical crossroads. Opal production is waning and many of the younger generation have moved away in search of a less remote lifestyle. The diesel generator that powers the town is costly and pollutive and the expense of water desalinization weighs greatly on the local economy. Some think tourism will revive business, while the old guard remains pessimistic. There seem to be many more questions than there are answers. Regardless, however, of which direction the community ultimately takes, isolation will always be the presiding feature, obstacle and possible demise of this small settlement on the great red plain.