HONOURS GEOGRAPHY
Physical Geography of Sub-Saharan Africa
 
*Africa is the world’s 2nd largest continent, covering about 11,677,240 square miles.  Sub-Saharan Africa makes up most of that area, totalling over 9.5 million square miles.

*The region is bounded by the Atlantic Ocean on the west and the Indian Ocean on the east, and the dividing point between them is the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa.

*The northern boundary of Sub-Saharan Africa, of course, is the Sahara Desert (a redundant name, as Sahara is just the English transliteration of the Arabic word for ‘desert’).  The Sahara is the largest desert in the world, covering over 3.5 million square miles—the entire USA would fit inside it.

*Just south of the Sahara is the Sahel, an area of tropical savannah and steppe that is slowly suffering from desertification, as the Sahara moves southwards—either due to unstoppable climate change (hotter weather with more and longer dry periods) or to human deforestation and over-grazing by livestock (or some combination of both).  This desertification has been particularly noticeable the past 50 years.

*There are several other deserts in Africa, notably the Namib Desert (on the Namibian coast) and the Kalahari Desert (in the interior of southern Africa).

*There are a number of mountain ranges and highland areas in Sub-Saharan Africa. 

*The Ruwenzori Mountains separate Uganda from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and are the only mountain range in Africa to have snow-covered peaks year-round (although two other isolate peaks have snow all year as well).  Because their peaks were always snow-covered, the local people called them ‘the Mountains of the Moon.’  Because of their height, and their location in the equatorial regions, almost every climate type, from tropical rainforest to snow-caps can be found on them.

*The Drakensberg (Dragon Mountains) are found in South Africa and Lesotho.

*In addition to these ranges, there are several volcanic peaks that stand alone, apart from any major range.  These include the two tallest mountains in Africa.

*The highest mountain in Africa is Mount Kilimanjaro, in Tanzania.  It stands 19,340 feet high (and like some mountains in the Ruwenzori Range, it always has snow on it).

*Mount Kenya is the highest mountain in Kenya, and the 2nd highest in Africa.  It stands 17,057 feet high, and also has snow all year.

*The Horn of Africa also has a major highland regions of hills, low mountains, and plateaux.  This region is known as the Ethiopian Highlands.

*The Ethiopian Highlands are cut by the Great Rift Valley.  This is a vast valley running from Ethiopia to Mozambique that has been created by the spreading of tectonic plates underneath Africa.  Mount Kilimanjaro is found along its edge, and many of Africa’s largest lakes are found in its basin.  One day (thousands of years hence) it will probably form an inlet of the Indian Ocean into the heart of Africa.

*The longest river in Africa is the Nile.  It comes from two main tributaries, the Blue Nile arising in the Ethiopian Highlands, and the White Nile, ultimately flowing from Lake Victoria, the largest lake in Africa.

*The Congo River is the second longest river in Africa, and the second-largest river in terms of water flow in the world (behind the Amazon).  It also has the second largest watershed (or river basin) of any river in the world, behind the Amazon and just ahead of the Mississippi-Missouri system.

*The third largest river in Africa is the Niger River, and the most fertile areas of Africa are those drained by these three rivers.

*Other major rivers include the Orange, the Zambezi, and the Limpopo in southern Africa.  The Orange River in particularly was important in the history of South Africa as the Boers (Afrikaaner farmers) settled around it or retreated beyond it to escape rule by the British.

*Africa has many large lakes, including one of the largest man-made lakes in the world:  Lake Volta, created by damming the Volta River in the 1960s.  Today it generates most of the power used by Ghana, and provides fishing and water for irrigation.

*Lake Victoria, source of the Nile, is the largest lake in Africa and the second-largest fresh-water lake in the world, covering 26,590 square miles (although it is very shallow).

*The second-largest lake in Africa, and the second-deepest fresh-water lake in the world is Lake Tanganyika.  It is thought that it was once part of the ocean, as it contains marine life such as jellyfish, crabs, and shrimp that have adapted to freshwater existence. 

*Lake Chad is shrinking.  Although it is fed by three rivers, droughts in northern Sub-Saharan Africa were been so bad in the 1970s that Lake Chad began to dry up and has not yet reversed the trend—parts of it are dry during the summer.

*Look at pages 506 and 507 in the textbook.

*Almost all of Sub-Saharan Africa is within the tropics—only parts of South Africa are not.    Consequently much of the region is covered in tropical rain forest, particularly in the Congo Basin. 

*Tropical Savannah is also common:  the most famous example of this is the Serengeti Plain in eastern Africa, much of which is now protected (at least in theory) as a Tanzanian National Park.

*There are some steppe regions in Africa (the Sahel is a mixture of steppe and savannah—both grassland climates).  Besides the Sahel, there are also steppes in southern Africa around the Kalihari.

*South Africa is mostly south of the Tropic of Capricorn, and it has some sub-tropical climates:  the eastern coast has Marine West Coast and Humid Sub-Tropical climates, while there is a small area of Mediterranean climate around Cape Town.

*Geologically, Africa ought to be one of the richest regions in the world:  it has most of the world’s gold reserves (half of the world’s gold is in South Africa alone), and rich deposits of uranium, cobalt, copper, iron, manganese, zinc, and diamonds.

*Africa also has tremendous reserves of water (at least in some regions), with the potential to have more useful hydroelectric power stations than the entire United States.  However, both the hydrological and the mineral wealth of the region have either been largely undeveloped or have seen most of their wealth go into the hands of a privileged few.



This page last updated 31 October, 2005.