Geography of South Africa

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Geography of South Africa
South Africa
ContinentAfrica
RegionSouthern Africa
Coordinates29°00′S 24°00′E / 29.000°S 24.000°E / -29.000; 24.000
AreaRanked 25th
1,220,813 km2 (471,359 sq mi)
Coastline2,798 km (1,739 mi)
BordersTotal land borders:
4,862 km
Botswana 1,840 km,
Lesotho 909 km,
Mozambique 491 km,
Namibia 967 km,
Swaziland 430 km,
Zimbabwe 225 km
Highest pointMafadi
3,450 m
Lowest pointSea level
0 m
Longest riverOrange River
2,200 km
Largest lakeLake Chrissie
 
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Geography of South Africa
South Africa
ContinentAfrica
RegionSouthern Africa
Coordinates29°00′S 24°00′E / 29.000°S 24.000°E / -29.000; 24.000
AreaRanked 25th
1,220,813 km2 (471,359 sq mi)
Coastline2,798 km (1,739 mi)
BordersTotal land borders:
4,862 km
Botswana 1,840 km,
Lesotho 909 km,
Mozambique 491 km,
Namibia 967 km,
Swaziland 430 km,
Zimbabwe 225 km
Highest pointMafadi
3,450 m
Lowest pointSea level
0 m
Longest riverOrange River
2,200 km
Largest lakeLake Chrissie

South Africa occupies the southern tip of Africa, its coastline stretching more than 2,500 km (1,553 mi) from the desert border with Namibia on the Atlantic (western) coast southwards around the tip of Africa and then north to the border with Mozambique on the Indian Ocean. The low-lying coastal zone is narrow for much of that distance, soon giving way to a mountainous escarpment (Great Escarpment) that separates the coast from the high inland plateau. In some places, notably the province of KwaZulu-Natal in the east, a greater distance separates the coast from the escarpment. Although most of the country is classified as semi-arid, it has considerable variation in climate as well as topography.

Like much of the African continent, South Africa features a landscape dominated by a high plateau in the interior, surrounded by a narrow strip of coastal lowlands. Unlike most of Africa, however, the perimeter of South Africa's inland plateau rises abruptly to form a series of mountain ranges before dropping to sea level. These mountains, known as the Great Escarpment, vary between 2,000 metres and 3,300 metres in elevation. The coastline is fairly regular and has few natural harbours. Each of the dominant land features—the inland plateau, the encircling mountain ranges, and the coastal lowlands—exhibits a wide range of variation in topography and in natural resources.

The interior plateau consists of a series of rolling grasslands (veld in Afrikaans), arising out of the Kalahari Desert in the north. The largest sub-region in the plateau is the 1,200-meter to 1,800-meter-high central area known as the Highveld. The Highveld stretches from Western Cape Province to the northeast, encompassing the entire Free State (formerly the Orange Free State). In the north it rises into a series of rock formations known as the Witwatersrand (literally, "Ridge of White Waters" in Afrikaans, commonly shortened to Rand). The Rand is a ridge of gold-bearing rock, roughly 100 kilometres by thirty-seven kilometres, that serves as a watershed for numerous rivers and streams. It is also the site of the world's largest proven gold deposits and the country's leading industrial city, Johannesburg.

North of the Witwatersrand is a dry savanna subregion, known as the Bushveld, characterised by open grasslands with scattered trees and bushes. Elevation varies between 600 metres and about 900 metres above sea level. The Bushveld, like the Rand, houses a virtual treasure chest of minerals, one of the largest and best known layered igneous (volcanic) mineral complexes in the world. Covering an area roughly 350 kilometres by 150 kilometres, the Bushveld has extensive deposits of platinum and chromium and significant reserves of copper, fluorspar, gold, nickel, and iron.

Along the northern edge of the Bushveld, the plains rise to a series of high plateaus and low mountain ranges, which form the southern edge of the Limpopo River Valley in Northern Province. These mountains include the Waterberg and the Strypoortberg ranges, and, in the far north, the Soutpansberg Mountains. The Soutpansberg range reaches an elevation of 1,700 meters before dropping off into the Limpopo River Valley and the border between South Africa and Zimbabwe. The Kruger National Park, which is known for its diverse terrain and wildlife, abuts most of the north-south border with Mozambique.

West of the Bushveld is the southern basin of the Kalahari Desert, which borders Namibia and Botswana at an elevation of 600 meters to 900 meters. Farther south, the Southern Namib Desert stretches south from Namibia along the Atlantic coastline. Between these two deserts lies the Cape Middleveld subregion, an arid expanse of undulating plains that sometimes reaches an elevation of 900 meters. The Cape Middleveld is also characterised by large depressions, or "pans," where rainfall collects, providing sustenance for a variety of plants and animals.

The southern border of the Highveld rises to form the Great Escarpment, the semicircle of mountain ranges roughly paralleling South Africa's coastline. The Drakensberg Mountains, the country's largest mountain range, dominate the southern and the eastern border of the Highveld from the Eastern Cape province to the border with Swaziland. The highest peaks of the Drakensberg Mountains in KwaZulu-Natal exceed 3,300 meters and are even higher in Lesotho, which is known as the "Mountain Kingdom."

The highest peaks in the nation not part of the Drakensberg Escarpment are located in the Karoo range in the southwestern part of the country. The two highest peaks in the Karoo are Compassberg and Seweweekspoortpiek, with summit elevations of 2,504 metres (8,215 ft) and 2,325 metres (7,628 ft) respectively.

In the west and the southwest, the Cape Ranges, the country's only "fold mountains"—formed by the folding of the continental crust—form an "L," where the north-south ranges meet several east-west ranges. The north-south Cape Ranges, paralleling the Atlantic coastline, include the Cedarberg Mountains, the Witsenberg Mountains, and the Great Winterhoek Mountains, and have peaks close to 2,000 metres high. The east-west ranges, paralleling the southern coastline, include the Swartberg Mountains and the Langeberg Mountains, with peaks exceeding 2,200 metres.

The Cape Ranges are separated from the Highveld by a narrow strip of semidesert, known as the Great Karoo (Karoo is a Khoisan term for "land of thirst"). Lying between 450 metres and 750 metres above sea level, the Great Karoo is crossed by several rivers that have carved canyons and valleys in their southward descent from the Highveld into the ocean. Another narrow strip of arid savanna lies south of the Great Karoo, between the Swartberg Mountains and the Langeberg Mountains. This high plain, known as the Little Karoo, has a more temperate climate and more diverse flora and fauna than the Great Karoo.

The narrow coastal strip between the Great Escarpment and the ocean, called the Lowveld, varies in width from about sixty kilometres to more than 200 kilometres. Beyond the coastline, the continental shelf is narrow in the west but widens along the south coast, where exploitable deposits of oil and natural gas have been found. The south coast is also an important spawning ground for many species of fish that eventually migrate to the Atlantic Ocean fishing zones.

The vast majority of South Africa's border consists of the ocean—or two oceans, which meet at the southwestern corner. Its territory includes Marion and Prince Edward Islands, nearly 2,000 km (1,243 mi) from Cape Town in the Atlantic Ocean.

The cold Benguela current sweeps up from the Antarctic along the Atlantic coast, laden with plankton and providing rich fishing-grounds. The east coast has the north-to-south Mozambique/Agulhas Current, which provides warm waters. These two currents have a major effect on the country's climate, the ready evaporation of the eastern seas providing generous rainfall while the Benguela current retains its moisture to cause desert conditions in the west.

Several small rivers run into the sea along the coastline, but none are navigable and none provide useful natural harbours. The coastline itself, being fairly smooth, provides only one good natural harbour, at Saldanha Bay north of Cape Town. A lack of fresh water prevented major development here. Nevertheless, busy harbours now exist at Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, East London, Durban, and Richards Bay.

On dry land, going from west to east, the country shares long borders with Namibia and Botswana, touches Zimbabwe, has a longitudinal strip of border with Mozambique to the east, and lastly curves in around Swaziland before rejoining Mozambique's southern border. In the interior, nestled in the curve of the bean-shaped Free State, lies the small mountainous country of Lesotho, completely surrounded by South African territory.

There are only two major rivers:

In so dry a country, dams and irrigation are extremely important: the largest dam is the Gariep on the Orange River.

The total land area of South Africa is slightly more than 1,200,000 km2 (463,000 sq mi), and it measures some 1,600 km (994 mi) from north to south and approximately the same from east to west.

Climate[edit]

Average temperatures in °C
CitySummerWinter
Cape Town2012.6
Durban23.617
Johannesburg19.411.1
Pretoria22.412.9
Source: Lew Leppan: The South African Book of Records. Cape Town, Don Nelson, 1999.

The Karoo, which occupies a large part of the western Central Plateau, has a climate extremely hot in summer and bitterly cold in winter. In contrast, the eastern coastline on the Indian Ocean is lush, well watered and warmed by the Mozambique Current; patches of Southern Africa mangroves grow along this coast.

The southern coast, part of which is known as the Garden Route, is temperate and green. The Cape of Good Hope has a Mediterranean climate, with cool, wet winters and warm, dry summers (becoming hotter in interior valleys). Snow commonly falls in winter on the higher ground of the Cape Fold Mountains. The Cape has a reputation for its wind – which blows intermittently virtually all year round, either from the south-east or the north-west – and for its sunny summer, when almost no rain falls. The vegetation of the Cape area consists of fynbos grassland and Albany thickets.

The eastern section of the Karoo does not extend as far north as the western part, giving way to the flat landscape of the Free State, which – though still semi-arid – receives somewhat more rain. North of the Vaal River the Highveld is better watered, with an annual rainfall of 760 mm (29.9 in) and a high altitude (around 1,750 m (5,741 ft)) which mitigates the extremes of heat. Winters are cold though snow is rare.

Further north and to the east, especially where a drop in altitude beyond the escarpment gives the Lowveld its name, temperatures rise: the Tropic of Capricorn slices through the extreme north. Here one finds the typical South African Bushveld. There is skiing in winter in the high Drakensberg mountains that form the eastern escarpment, but the coldest place in the country is Sutherland in the western Roggeveld Mountains, with midwinter temperatures as low as −15 degrees Celsius. The deep interior provides the hottest temperatures: in 1948 the mercury hit 51.7 °C (125.06 °F) in the Northern Cape Kalahari near Upington.

The Central Plateau[edit]

Satellite image of left, generated from raster graphics data supplied by The Map Library.
Topography of South Africa

The Central Plateau has a large range of landscape. It is drained by two major rivers, the Orange and the Limpopo, and is made up of 10 smaller geographic regions. The altitude varies from 600 to 2,500 m and the rainfall varies from 200 to 1200 mm annually. It is ringed in the east, south and west by the Great Escarpment. In general the Great Escarpment slowly loses altitude into the northwestern areas of the Central Plateau. In the west it is very dry, merging with the Kalahari in the northwest. In the central areas the arid scrubland gives way to dry grasslands which become better watered further to the east. These grasslands extend northeastward until they reach the Witwatersrand and Magaliesberg, which are the main watershed between the Orange and Limpopo Rivers. The Witwatersrand and Magaliesberg also form part of an area of low mountain ranges surrounding a basin called the Bushveld. To the north of that the semi-arid savanna loses altitude towards the Limpopo River valley. The regions are outlined in more detail below.

Regions of higher elevation[edit]

Southern Africa seen from Aqua and Terra satellites

Low-lying regions[edit]

Extreme points[edit]

South Africa's cities and main towns

This is a list of the extreme points of South Africa, the points that are farther north, south, east or west than any other location in the country.

Including the Prince Edward Islands
South African mainland

See also[edit]

References[edit]