South Africa consists basically of two geographic regionsa coastal region and a high interior plateau.
The coastal region forms an arc 1,500 miles (2,400 km) long and up to 100 miles (160 km) wide, extending from Mozambique to Namibia. In most areas, the land rises from narrow coastal plains in a series of steps created by steep escarpments. The last and highest step, sometimes called the Great Escarpment, rises abruptly several thousand feet above the adjacent base land. Its loftiest part makes up the Drakensberg range, where the rise is as much as 7,000 feet (2,100 m) and a few peaks exceed 11,000 feet (3,300 m) above sea level.
Along the southern coast the steplike terrain is interrupted by a series of high mountain ranges, which run parallel to the coast. Between these ranges are dry plateaus and basinlike areas, most notable of which are the Great Karroo and Little Karroo.
The high interior plateau, which occupies most of South Africa, lies at elevations generally between 2,000 and 6,000 feet (600 and 1,800 m). The greater part of it, that known as the Highveld, lies above 4,000 feet (1,200 m). In general, the plateau slopes gently away from the edge of the Great Escarpment and in most places appears flat to rolling. There are, however, areas of rough terrain, including highlands and buttes. In the northwest, near the border of Botswana, is the southernmost fringe of the Kalahari Desert.
South Africa has neither large navigable rivers nor large lakes. The chief drainage system is formed by the Orange River and its main tributary, the Vaal. Both flow westward from the Drakensberg range and join about midway to the Atlantic coast. The only other sizable rivers are the Limpopo, or Crocodile, River and its chief tributary, the Olifants River. The Limpopo, from its source west of Pretoria, flows along the northern border and then through Mozambique to the Indian Ocean. Numerous short rivers drain the southern and eastern coasts. Elsewhere, because of semiarid conditions, most of the rivers carry little or no water for many months of the year.
Several notable waterfalls are found in South Africa. On the Tugela River near the Lesotho border is Tugela Falls. With a ribbon-like drop of 3,110 feet (948 m), Tugela Falls ranks second in height among the world's waterfalls. Equally impressive, though only 620 feet (189 m) high, is the thunderous Augrabies Falls on the Orange River in the northwest.
South Africa stretches from about 20 S. to almost 35 S. latitude and is crossed by the Tropic of Capricorn in the north. Despite the generally subtropical location, the climate is varied and temperate, largely because of the elevation of the land. There is much sunny weather all year.
On the plateau, summers are warm and winters are cool with occasional freezing temperatures. Annual average temperatures at Johannesburg, for example, are 65 F. (18 C.) in January and 50 F. (10 C.) in July. Annual rainfall is moderate to scant; virtually all of it occurs between October and Aprilthe warm months. Amounts decline from more than 30 inches (760 mm) a year in the east to less than 5 inches (130 mm) in the west.
Except in the west, the coastal areas are considerably warmer than the plateau. The east coast, particularly from East London northward past Durban, has a humid subtropical climate similar to Florida's. Summers are warm, winters are mild, and rainfall is abundant. Durban, for example, has an average January temperature of 76 F. (24 C.) and an average July temperature of 64 F. (18 C.) and receives 43 inches (1,090 mm) of rainfall.
The south coast, from Port Elizabeth to Cape Town, has a climate resembling that of southern California. Mild, rainy winters and warm, dry summers are characteristic. The climate along the west coast, especially in the north around Port Nolloth, is cool and extremely dry, the chief influence being the cold, offshore Benguela Current. Port Nolloth receives only 2 inches (50 mm) of rainfall annually; average temperatures there are 60 F. (16 C.) in January and 54 F. (12 C.) in July.
Forests cover only about 1 per cent of the land. They are found mainly on the higher and wetter slopes of Eastern Cape and KwaZulu/Natal provinces. At lower elevations and in the Limpopo province are large tracts of tropical savannas (grasslands with scattered trees). Grasses cover much of the plateau. They range from tall stands in the higher, more humid parts of the east to scattered short grasses and scrub in the drier sections of the west. Some areas have virtually no vegetation. The southwest coast has low, drought-resistant evergreen plants, similar to those of southern California.
South Africa's once-abundant wildlife is now limited mostly to the national parks and game reserves. The largest and best known of these is Kruger National Park, occupying more than 7,340 square miles (19,000 km2) in Limpopo and Mpumalanga provinces. Animals here include lions, leopards, cheetahs, elephants, buffaloes, giraffes, monkeys, baboons, and antelopes. Crocodiles and hippopotamuses are common along the streams in the park.
Among the many kinds of birds found in South Africa are ostriches, hornbills, and secretary birds.
Other wildlife sanctuaries include Hluhluwe Game Reserve in KwaZulu/Natal, home of the rare white rhinoceros, and Addo Elephant National Park, Bontebok National Park, Kalahari Gemsbok National Park, and Mountain Zebra National Park in Eastern Cape Province.