The second largest continent after Asia, Africa is dominated in the north by the vast Sahara Desert and in the east by the Great Rift Valley. A belt of rainforest lies along the Equator, and grasslands provide grazing for herds of wild animals. Africa is home to many different peoples, each with their own distinctive languages and customs. Islam and Christianity are widespread, but many Africans adhere to their own traditional beliefs.

Physical Features

Most of Africa is a high plateau covered with deserts, lush rainforests, and dry grasslands. It is crossed by rivers, which bring water to dry regions and provide communications. Although they lie on the Equator, the high peaks in the east are snow-capped all year. Africa has several volcanoes.

River Nile

The Nile is the world s longest river. From its source in Lake Victoria, it flows 6,695 km (4,160 miles) north through Uganda, Sudan, and Egypt to the Mediterranean Sea. Africa’s third longest river, the Niger, flows 4,180 km (2,597 miles) in a big loop through western Africa, ending in Nigeria in a delta bigger than that of the Nile.

The world’s largest desert, the Sahara, covers much of northwestern Africa. It has an area of 9,065,000 sq km (3,263,400 sq miles) and is rapidly expanding as land at its edges is overgrazed. With less than 100 mm (4 in) of rainfall every year and daytime temperatures of up to 50°C (122°F), only a few specially adapted plants and animals survive here.

Great Rift Valley

The mountains of Ethiopia are divided by the Great Rift Valley that stretches 6,000 km (3,750 miles) north from Mozambique, through east Africa and the Red Sea, into Syria. The valley is formed by massive cracks in the Earth’s crust. It is up to 90 km (55 miles) wide, and in millions of years will eventually divide the African continent.
Simen Mountains, Ethiopia

Africa Facts

Okavango Delta

Many rivers end in deltas at the sea, but the Okavango River in southern Africa has a delta that forms a swamp in the Kalahari Desert. The Okavango rises in Angola and flows 974 km (605 miles) to Botswana, where its delta and swamps cover more chan 22,000 sq kir. 3,500 sq miles).

Cross-serrion through Africa

Africa rises sharpiv from the Atlantic Ocean up to about 1,000 m 3,280 ft) before dropping down into die marshes of the Zaire Basin. The Ruwenzori Mountains and Great Rift Valley lie to the east, and the plateau falls gently to the Indian Ocean.

Climatic zones

Although most of Africa is warm or hot all year round, the climate varies greatly because of the wide range of landscapes. Parts of the north coast have hot, dry summers and cooler, moist winters. Desert regions have cold nights, scorching hot days, and almost no rain at all. On the Equator the climate is hot and humid, with high rainfall. Mountain regions have warm summers and cool winters.


About 40 per cent of Africa is desert. The Erg of Bilma in Niger is part of the vast Sahara. In Arabic, erg means a sandy expanse. The sand is blown by the wind into ripples and into huge dunes, some of which may be nearly 200 m (650 ft) high. Two other main desert areas are the Kalahari and the Namib, both in southern Africa.


Much of the northern coast of Africa has a warm Mediterranean climate. Coastal cliffs and hills are covered in sparse, low-growing, often fragrant plants and shrubs that are able to thrive in the poor, stony soils.

Many of the plants have thorns and small, leathery leaves to prevent them from drying out in the fierce heat of the sun and frequent sea breezes.


About 40 per cent of Africa is covered with savannah, which is the name given to grassland with scattered trees and shrubs. This type of land forms a wide loop around the Zaire (Congo) Basin. Vast herds of grazing animals, such as antelopes and zebras, move around the savannah seeking fresh grass to eat.

Tropical Rainforest

Dense, tropical rainforest covers less than 20 per cent of Africa. The most extensive areas lie close to the Equator in West Africa and in Central Africa’s Zaire (Congo) Basin. Thousands of species of tree flourish in the hot, humid climate, which produces rain all year round. However, large-scale felling of trees for timber hardwoods, such as teak and mahogany, threatens to destroy this environment.


Africa’s highest ranges include the Drakensberg, in southeast Africa, which runs for about 1,130 km (70 miles) through South Africa and Lesotho and forms part of the rim of the great South African Plateau. The highest point is Thabana Ntlenyana at 3,482 m (11,424 ft). Even higher mountain ranges are the Atlas range in Morocco, and the Ruwenzori on the border between Uganda and Congo (Zaire).


One in eight of the world’s people lives in Africa, mostly along the north and west coasts, and in the fertile river valleys. Although traditionally people live in small villages, a growing number are moving to towns and cities to look for work. Birth rates in many countries are high and families are large.

About half the population is under 15 years old.


Africa has many resources, but they are unevenly distributed. Libya and Nigeria are leading oil producers, southern Africa is rich in gold and diamonds, and Zambia is a leading copper producer. Tropical forests yield valuable timber but are being felled at an alarming rate. Africa is a leading producer of cocoa beans, cassava, bananas, coffee, and tea.