What is the Physical Geography of Africa?

Africa is the world’s second-largest continent. It spans 30.3 million km2, equivalent to 6% of the world’s total land surface area. This means Africa has many phenomenal physical features and spectacular natural wonders. Moreover, as Africa is so large, there’s a great diversity in climate and ecosystems.

Where is Africa located?

To answer, ‘what is the physical geography of Africa?’ in-depth, you’ll need to know its geographical location. Africa is south of Europe, with coastlines along the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. The Atlantic Ocean and the Indian Ocean also bound the continent. The equator runs through the continent’s middle, dividing it equally in half.

What is the physical geography of Africa like?

We’ll need to look at Africa’s eight major geographical regions to answer this question. These regions are unique in climate, biodiversity, and physical features.

Africa’s eight geographical regions

Africa has eight distinctive physical geographical features. In the north are the Sahara desert and the Sahel below it. In the northeast, there are the Ethiopian highlands, which are a vast mountainscape that extends through most of Ethiopia and Eritrea. To the east is the Swahili coast, a coastal area of the Indian Ocean. And, further, on land, there are the African Great Lakes. To the west, lush rainforests are the largest in the Congo. Finally, Southern Africa, located in the south, is distinct for its temperate climate, and several plateaus stretch across this region.

Keep reading to learn more about these eight regions!

The Sahara

Did you know that Sahara is so large it equals the size of Brazil? It is the world’s largest hot desert and makes up 25% of the African continent. It stretches from the northwest in Morocco, Western Sahara, Algeria, and Mauritania, through to Mail, Niger, Libya, and Chad and ends in the northeast in Egypt, Eritrea, and Sudan.

The Sahara has many noteworthy features that make it a great case study in your geography lesson(s). In the Sahara, dunes (known as ergs) stretch for hundreds of miles. These ergs contain huge amounts of salt, which has historically been used for cooking! In addition, though, 70% of the Sahara comprises regs and sand plains formed from prehistoric sea beds. Other features of the Sahara include plateaus of rock, and oases, which are water sources such as springs and wells. The majority of the Sahara’s population lives in or around oases.

Despite being a hostile environment, 2 million people live in the Sahara desert. And an incredible number of plant and animal species live in the Sahara that has adapted to its harsh environment and conditions.

The Sahel

The Sahel is best described as a transition zone between the Sahara and the savannas. It begins in the western country of Senegal and ends in the eastern region of Sudan. The Sahel is made up of vast plains of semi-arid land. Within the Sahel is the rich, fertile delta of the Niger River, but this is changing drastically due to climate change. To prevent drought and desertification of this region, drought and fire-resistant trees, such as baobabs and acacias, are being planted.

Ethiopian Highlands

80% of Africa’s tallest mountains are found in the Ethiopian highlands. Some of the summits reach as high as 14,930 ft!

The Ethiopian highlands have an Alpine climate due to their elevation and proximity to the Equator. Plus, these highlands catch the monsoon winds from the Indian Ocean, which cause large amounts of rainfall. The rainy season can last from June to September, and it causes the River Nile to swell and flood in the summer.


Savannas (also known as grasslands) cover 5 million square miles of land. These savanna regions cross most of Central Africa, originating south of the Sahara and Sahel and ending at the tip of Southern Africa.

The Serengeti is the most well-known savanna, home to large populations of the world’s biggest land mammals, such as elephants, lions, and giraffes. Savannas are home to both tropical wet and dry climates.

Swahili Coast

The Swahili Coast is a 1,000-mile-long stretch of coastline along the Indian Ocean. It begins in Somalia, going through Kenya and Tanzania, before ending in Mozambique.

The barrier islands and coral reefs protect the area from severe weather, giving the region both tropical and subtropical climates.


80% of Africa’s rainforests are concentrated in Central Africa and found along the basin of the Congo River. After the Amazon rainforest, the Congolian rainforest is the largest in the world. The Congo River rainforests are home to a rich diversity of life. According to National Geographic, a single four-mile patch could contain up to 400 species of bird, 150 species of butterfly, and 60 species of amphibians.

African Great Lakes

The African Great Lakes are located around the Great Rift Valley, a physical geographical feature caused by the African continent’s separation from Saudi Arabia. This caused huge cracks to form on the Earth’s surface. The most notable lakes in this geographical region are Lake Albert, Lake Edward, Lake Kivu, Lake Malawi, Lake Tanganyika, Lake Turkana, and Lake Victoria. You will likely find plenty of hippos and crocodiles in these lakes!

Southern Africa

Southern Africa is celebrated for its rocky features. Plateaus and mountains are found throughout the region, alongside animal reserves. Lions, elephants, and rhinos, among other species, are protected in these reserves. Table Mountain, which overlooks the South African city of Cape Town, is the most distinctive and well-known plateau of Southern Africa.

More physical features of Africa

Here are some quick-fire facts about the other notable physical and geographical features of Africa:

  • The highest mountain in Africa is Mount Kilimanjaro, which is located in Tanzania
  • Africa’s largest urban area is Cairo in Egypt, with a population of 15.6 million
  • The world’s longest river is the River Nile, found in Egypt
  • The African continent has the most countries of any continent (54 in total)
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