Geography

THE GREAT ESCARPMENT AND THE CENTRAL PLATEAU

At the southernmost tip of the continent, South Africa has more than 16,000 miles of coastline. The occupying area of coastline and land close to sea level is relatively narrow, with the majority of the country lying atop the Great Escarpment, a central plateau. This plateau is the most important geological formation in the country and has many names for the many different sections, the most notable being the Drakensburg. The Drakensburg is about half the total length of the Great Escarpment, though it is most notable for bordering the landlocked country of Lesotho. Here the elevation is nearly 10,000 feet, the highest section of the Great Escarpment.  

Meanwhile the central plateau has a range of elevation of around 1,000 to almost 7,000 feet. The most prominent portions of the plateau are known as the Highveld and Lowveld. These make up much of South Africa's north and east interior. The Highveld is much more temperate and is predominantly made up of vast grasslands. Meanwhile, the Lowveld,  lying in the Northeast and bordering Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique, is much hotter with sparse cultivation. 

 

THE COASTAL PLAIN AND COASTLINE 

South Africa’s coastal plain is quite narrow, ranging from about 60 to 160 miles in width and slopes gently southwards towards the coast. This region has a number of small rivers, save for in the west where there are few due to that region’s aridity. The coastline is relatively smooth and flat but has very few natural harbors.

FUN FACT: This lack of natural harbors was a natural defense against European colonialism for many years as sailors had a difficult time landing ships along the coast. Without a natural harbor, European ships had little shelter from the violent storms of the southern Atlantic and Indian Oceans. 

 

THE CAPE FOLD MOUNTAINS 

The Cape Fold mountain range, South Africa's largest, runs along the southwest coastline of South Africa for about 500 miles. Though arid for most of the year, these mountains are usually snow-covered in winter. The Cape Fold mountains, along with most of the central plateau, have a very long and complex geological history that has resulted in their unique formations today. Interestingly, this is the region where most of South Africa’s wine grapes are grown.

FUN FACT: The Cape Fold mountain region is also famous for its ostrich farms. 

 

THE GREAT AND LITTLE KAROO 

The other large section of South African interior, along with the Highveld and Lowveld, are the Great Karoo and the Little Karoo. The Great Karoo is a large semi-desert region directly north of the Cape Fold Mountains. The Karoo is famous for extremes: great heat and great frosts; great droughts and great floods. Though the region gets remarkably little rain, it is habitable due to the abundance of groundwater found in the region, making agriculture and pasture possible. 

The only geographic boundary of the Karoo is the Cape Fold mountain range to the South. How far it extends to the north, east, and west is up for debate. The Little Karoo on the other hand is nestled in the Cape Fold Mountains. The Karoo is characterized by an abundance endemic South African vegetation.