written by: ESH•edited by: Sarah Malburg•updated: 2/20/2011
South Africa has some of the most diverse terrain and microclimates in all of Africa. From the biologically diverse shrublands of the Cape Peninsula to high, windswept mountains framing plateau grasslands, South Africa's land features are both scenic and ecologically significant.
slide 1 of 6
The land features of South Africa might be taken to mean a number of different physical aspects. At a large scale, they could refer to major physiographic or geomorphic provinces, like the Limpopo Flats, which occupy the valley of the Limpopo River. Within those regions of grouped geologic character are individual landforms--like mesas, canyons, and floodplains--that could also be described as "land features." Also significant are vegetation zones, defined by plant communities but strongly reflecting climatic and geologic influences.
slide 2 of 6
Despite its variety of landforms and ecosystems, the basic topographic layout of South Africa is relatively simple. Coastal plains hugging the Indian and Atlantic oceans ascend to significant escarpments comprising the highest terrain in southern Africa. Among these uplifts are the basalt-crowned Drakensberg (or Dragon Mountains) of South Africa and the Kingdom of Lesotho, the highest peaks of which exceed 10,000 feet. Beyond these broken ranges is the largest of the country’s topographic regions: its high and rolling interior plateaus. Major rivers include the Limpopo, which rises in the Kalahari and forms part of the borders of South Africa, Botswana and Mozambique before emptying into the Indian Ocean.
slide 3 of 6
Some Major Landmarks
The Cape of Good Hope is one of South Africa’s heraldic landmarks, rich with nautical lore and scenic beauty. Despite common perceptions, the Cape does not mark the meeting point of the Atlantic and Indian oceans--that rough boundary sits farther to the southeast where the Benguela and Agulhas currents confront one another--but it has long been a signal point for explorers, whalers and other sailors. It is famous for tempestuous weather and unique vegetation. Indeed, the heathlands and scrub of the Cape Province constitute one of the great centers for floral diversity in the world. Another well-known landmark of South Africa is the massive, heavily vegetated Blyde River Canyon in the Drakensberg, a 31-mile defile that ranks up there with Arizona’s Grand Canyon and Namibia’s Fish Creek Canyon as one of the largest gorges in the world.
slide 4 of 6
Blanketed over this topographic face of the country are numerous vegetation zones that, interacting with geology and climate, produce South Africa’s ecological landscapes. These include large areas of savanna, including moist savanna and arid savanna--the latter zone most exemplified in South Africa’s portion of the Kalahari Desert, a vast, mostly flat region of scattered acacias and grasses that extends into Namibia and Botswana. Southwestern South Africa, including the Cape of Good Hope, supports the fynbos biome, a mosaic of shrublands featuring many endemic plant species. Grasslands are extensive in South Africa, where the highveld covers much of the central interior plateau, historically roamed by large herds of grazing animals like black wildebeest and white rhinoceros. Grasslands and heaths also cover some of the high mountainous parts of the country, including the Drakensberg highlands. The famous Kruger National Park in northeastern South Africa has lowveld grasslands, savanna and mopane woodland roamed by large mammals such as elephants, eland (a huge antelope sacred to the San people of southern Africa), black rhinoceros, Cape buffalo, lion, hippopotamus and African wild dogs, to name only a few.
slide 5 of 6
Appreciating Land Features
Visitors can appreciate South Africa's diverse land features by exploring national parks, game refuges, and other protected regions--or simply by traveling around the country. Whether it's wind-scoured scrub on high interior plateaus, lush riverine forest along the coastal plain, sere grasslands of the Kalahari, or billowing shrub-lands of the Cape Peninsula, the interplay of ecological community and topography result in these visually striking landscapes at the rugged foot of Africa.
slide 6 of 6
(1) Sinclair, I., P. Hockey, and W. Tarboton. Birds of Southern Africa, 3rd edition. 2002.
(2) Alden, P.C., et al. National Audubon Society Field Guide to African Wildlife. 1995.
(3) Hance, W.A. The Geography of Modern Africa. 1975.
(4) Cosi, R., et al. National Geographic Traveler: South Africa. 2009.