Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Geography of South Africa
South Africa occupies the southern tip of Africa, its long coastline stretching more than 2,500 kilometres from the desert border with Namibia on the Atlantic coast southwards around the tip of Africa and then north to the border with subtropical Mozambique on the Indian Ocean. The low-lying coastal zone is narrow for much of that distance, soon giving way to a mountainous escarpment that separates it 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 the country is classified as semi-arid, it has considerable variation in climate as well as topography.
The great inland Karoo plateau, where rocky hills and mountains rise from sparsely populated scrubland, is very dry, and gets more so as it shades in the north-west towards the Kalahari desert. Extremely hot in summer, it can be icy in winter. In contrast, the eastern coastline is lush and well watered. The southern coast, part of which is known as the Garden Route , is rather less tropical but also green, as is the Cape of Good Hope - the latter especially in winter. This south-western corner of the country has a Mediterranean climate, with wet winters and hot, dry summers. Its most famous climatic characteristic is its wind, which blows intermittently virtually all year round, either from the south-east or the north-west.
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 and saved by its altitude (Johannesburg is at 1 740m; its annual rainfall is 760 milimetres) from subtropical 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. This is also where one finds the typical South African Bushveld of wildlife fame. 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 -15º celsius. The deep interior provides the hottest temperatures: in 1948 the mercury hit 51.7ºC celsius in the Northern Cape Kalahari near Upington.
By far South Africa's biggest neighbour is the ocean - or two oceans, which meet at the southwestern corner. Its territory includes Marion and Prince Edward Islands, nearly 2,000 kilometres 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 provide its 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 Richard's 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, is the small mountainous country of Lesotho, completely surrounded by South African territory.
There are only two major rivers: the Limpopo, a stretch of which is shared with Zimbabwe, and the Orange (with its tributary, the Vaal) which runs with a variable flow across the central landscape from east to west, emptying into the Atlantic Ocean at the Namibian border. 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 1.2 million square kilometres, and it measures some 1,600 kilometres from north to south and approximately the same from east to west.
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