South Africa possesses a diverse and picturesque geography to the casual or trained observer, varying from fertile coastal plains in the south and east to semi-arid and desert-like conditions in the north and west of the country. In assessing the geography of South Africa, one should pay attention to the situation and layout of the country.
South Africa lies below the tropic of Capricorn, at the southernmost end of the African continent, and therefore has a southern, eastern and western coastline. South Africa covers a surface area of approximately 1 200 000 square km (approximately 468 000 square miles), and is bordered in the north by Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Swaziland. Lesotho, which is an independent country, is enclosed by South Africa. Although the coastline of South Africa is extremely long, it is rugged. Even so, there are four important ports – Cape Town, Durban, East London and Port Elizabeth. The eastern coast is lapped by the cold Atlantic Benguela current, while the western coast is washed by the warm Indian Ocean.
The coastal areas are bordered by mountains, which form the edge or escarpment of the inland plateau. While the south-western coastal region is a winter rain area, the elevated ground inland is more likely to have summer rain, typically as thunderstorms. The north-eastern coast has a tropical climate, with warm and humid days. The difference in altitude in the country is substantial – the altitude of Cape Town is barely above sea level, while Johannesburg is above 1 500m (5 000ft).
The central zone of the country is occupied by the Karoo, a large semi-arid area that used to be a lush swamp during the era of the dinosaurs. In the east the Karoo borders the Drakensberg mountains. To the north, however, the Karoo peters out into the arid Kalahari desert.