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Overview of African Geography

  • Author
    Lisa Tabor

    Lisa Tabor is an Assistant Professor of Geography and Social Science Education at the University of Northern Iowa. She has a Ph.D in Curriculum and Instruction and an MA in Geography from Kansas State University. Lisa has been teaching for over 10 years and loves it.

  • Instructor

    Douglas has two master's degrees (MPA & MBA) and a PhD in Higher Education Administration.

Explore African geography and notable landscapes and landmarks. View an Africa physical features map and learn how to describe the geographical features of Africa. Updated: 11/10/2021

Table of Contents


Africa: Geography

Africa is a vast and unique continent. Second in size to Asia, Africa is 11,724,000 square miles in size, and, in addition to its mainland, includes many small island nations. Madagascar is the largest of the island nations, followed by the much smaller nations of the Seychelles, Socotra, the Comoros, Mauritius, Reunion, Ascension, St. Helena, Tristan da Cunha, Cape Verde, the Bijagos Islands, São Tomé and Príncipe, the Azores, Madeira, and the Canary Islands.

Being such a large continent, Africa has a wide variety of physical geography. The continent is typically divided into two regions: North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa. North Africa is composed of the northern countries with Mediterranean Sea borders that are dominated by the Sahara Desert and predominantly of the Islamic faith. Sub-Saharan Africa is all the land south of North Africa, known for a variety of physical geography (rainforest, deserts, plains, and mountains) and the dominance of the Christian faith. View the following African geography map for a better understanding of this range of physical geography.

Political map of Africa, highlighting the many nations of the continent

Each nation is colored differently than its neighbors. Water features of rivers and lakes are labeled, as well as the Sahara Desert.

Where Is Africa Located?

Africa is located south of Europe and southwest of the Middle East. The continent is surrounded by water bodies on all sides. The Mediterranean Sea to the north, the Suez Canal and the Red Sea to the northeast, the Indian Ocean to the east, and the Atlantic Ocean to the west. Uniquely, the African continent lies within all four hemispheres. With this continental placement, latitude has a large role in determining the physical geography of Africa. Latitude is the distance a location is either north or south of the equator.

Africa's physical geography and proximity to water on all sides have greatly impacted the cultural and social development of the continent over time. Physical geography helps to determine what resources are available and how the movement of goods, people, and ideas can flow.

The Swahili Coast is an example of influential geography. The Swahili Coast is a swath of land on the east coast of Africa. It spans the coast of the countries of Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, and the Comoros. The Swahili Coast has clear access to the Middle East, Asia, and Oceania by boat, as well as the shortest path inland, east to west across Africa. With resources and access, it became an established trading zone and cultural exchange in the 8th century, when the African and Arab traders and travelers intermixed enough to name the area in their shared language. Swahili is both the name of the language spoken and means "people of the coast."

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Geographical Features of Africa

Africa is home to many remarkable geographical features, including rivers, mountains, and deserts.

  • The Nile River is the longest river in the world at 4,132 miles long. It starts in Lake Victoria and moves northward, draining into the Mediterranean Sea in the country of Egypt.
  • Lake Victoria is the largest lake in Africa, is the largest tropical lake in the world, and is known for being the headwaters of the Nile River. It is 26,828 square miles in size and located within the countries of Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya.
  • Victoria Falls is the largest waterfall in Africa and is considered to be the greatest singular blanket of falling water in the world. It is located on the Zambezi River that borders between the countries of Zambia and Zimbabwe.
  • Mount Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Africa at 19,341 feet. It is located in Tanzania and is a dormant volcano. Glaciers can be found at the summit, even though Mount Kilimanjaro is near the equator.
  • The Sahara Desert is the largest hot desert on the planet, and 90% of daytime sunlight is visible there. It covers over 3 million square miles of space in North Africa. This enormous span is approximately 3,000 miles east to west and 1,000 miles north to south; this is almost the size of the United States.

African Landscapes

Using latitude as the guide from north to south, the geography of Africa's landscapes will be described. The equator, which is zero degrees latitude, runs east to west around the world like a belt. The equator bisects the continent of Africa almost directly in half, which makes much of the northern half of Africa geographically reflect the lower half.

A map of the African continent that visually illustrates the physical geography changes from north to south

The map distinguishes through color the large size of the Sahara transitioning to the lush green of the tropical rainforests, to the eastern highlands, and the small deserts in the south.

North Africa

Starting at the northernmost coast of the African continent is the Mediterranean Sea. The northernmost part of Africa enjoys a Mediterranean climate, with hot and dry summers and cool and dry winters. This has long been an area of much human activity, as a meeting point between Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.

Moving South to the Sahara Desert, the largest hot weather desert in the world dominates the region of North Africa. On the northern side of East Africa, a piece of land juts out into the Indian Ocean, creating the southern border for the Gulf of Aden, which is south of Yemen. The Horn of Africa's physical geography is unique, as it is the transition zone between the Sahara Desert and the highlands of East Africa.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is the highest physical feature in Africa?

Mount Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Africa. It sits at 19,341 feet in the country of Tanzania, and is also a dormant volcano.

How does geography affect Africa?

Geography is key to understanding the physical landscape of Africa. Because the equator nearly bisects the continent in half, there is a pattern of where the deserts, grasslands, and forest regions will be.

What are the main physical features of Africa?

The dominant physical features of Africa are the Nile River, Mount Kilimanjaro, Victoria Falls, Lake Victoria, and the Sahara Desert. The Nile River is the longest river on the planet. The highest mountain peak in Africa is Mount Kilimanjaro. Victoria Falls is known for being the largest waterfall. Lake Victoria is the largest of all lakes in Africa. The largest hot desert in the world is the Sahara.

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