The early afternoon sun was pounding the parched soil, and Gus Whyte was pulling on his dust-caked cowboy boots to take me for a drive. We’d just finished lunch—cured ham, a loaf of bread I’d bought on the trip up, chutney pickled by Whyte’s wife, Kelly—at his house in Anabranch South, which isn’t a town but rather a fuzzy cartographic notion in the far west of New South Wales, a seven-hour drive from Melbourne and half as far again from Sydney. I’d been grateful, as I pulled off the blacktop of the Silver City Highway to cover the last 10 miles or so, that I’d rented the biggest 4×4 Hertz could give me. I was on a dirt road, technically, but the dirt was mostly sand, punctuated with rocks the size of small livestock and marked only by the faintest of tire tracks.
We climbed into Whyte’s pickup, and I reached instinctively over my shoulder. “Don’t worry about seat belts,” he said, amiably but firmly. “I know it’s a habit.” His Jack Russell terrier, Molly, balanced herself on his lap as he drove.
Whyte, who has reddish-brown hair, sheltered his ruddy, sun-weathered face beneath a battered bush hat. He raises livestock, mostly sheep and some cattle, on nearly 80,000 acres. Normally he’d run about 7,500 sheep, but he was down to 2,000. There wasn’t enough water for more. “I can’t remember it being this dry,” he said. “It’s disheartening to see a landscape like this. You hate it. This is where I was born and grew up, and it means the world to me.”
He kept driving, rattling off statistics about rainfall (down) and temperatures (up). Every so often he’d stop and get out to check on one of the storage tanks dotting the property, which held what little water he had. After a while we pulled onto the crest of a small hill, and Whyte pointed out Yelta Lake, a kidney-shaped landmark that’s colored, on maps, in a reassuringly cool blue. In real life it was the same dun color as everything else. “It hasn’t had any water in it since 2014,” he said.
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