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Covering 1,219,090 sq km, making it one-eighth the size of the US, twice the size of France and over three times the size of Germany. The Republic of South Africa stretches about 1,600 km from north to south, between the River Limpopo and Cape Agulhas (“Cape Needle”), and about the same distance from east to west, from Port Nolloth to Durban. The Tropic of Capricorn slices through the northernmost region. This vast country is home to about 49 million people (2009 estimate). The long western coastline runs along the Atlantic Ocean, while to the east and north of the tip of Africa the Indian Ocean meets the land, totalling 2,880 km of seashore in all The neighbouring countries of Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Swaziland share 4,900 km of border line with South Africa. The tiny kingdom of Lesotho is an enclave within South Africa.

Rivers and borders

Many of the rivers vary seasonally and their beds are parched for a good part of the year. In this dry country, the 500 dams along the waterways are very important. The main rivers have played a central role in South Africa’s history, often marking out the borders established over the colonial period. The Orange, one of the larger rivers, forms a natural boundary between South Africa and Namibia. It rises in the Drakensberg mountains in Lesotho, flowing westward for 1,860 km through South Africa to the Atlantic Ocean. The source of its longest tributary, the Vaal, is near the border with Swaziland. This river runs west, then southwest, along the boundary of the Free State.

In the north, several irrigation dams have been built along the Limpopo, which drains the Witwatersrand. The river flows northeast, to the Botswanan border, then runs through Zimbabwe and Mozambique before emptying into the Indian Ocean at Delogoa Bay, north-east of Maputo. The Limpopo is 1,600 km, long, but only navigable along the 160‑km stretch upstream from its mouth.

Climate zones

South Africa has many different climatic zones, as varied as the landscapes. Desert conditions prevail in the north-west, while the southwest benefits from a Mediterranean climate. The inland plateau is temperate, and the northeast is sub-tropical. The weather is also affected by altitude and rainfall. More generally, South Africa is a sunny country with warm or hot days and cool winter nights. The summer months, from November to March, are the rainiest, although it also rains in winter in the Cape region.

Ocean currents influence the climate, too. The east coast has the advantage of the warm Agulhas Current, which means temperatures are an average of 6 degrees higher than on the west coast (washed by the cold Benguela Stream). Durban has warm, humid weather all year round. The difference is remarkable at the Cape of Good Hope, where water on the western side is about 4°C colder than water on the eastern side.

Around Cape Town, the climate is Mediterranean, with hot dry summers and an average temperature of 26°C, and winter temperatures that vary between 5 and 17°C. A strong, persistent southeasterly wind known as the “Cape Doctor” clears the Cape of pollution. The Great Karoo is an arid region where temperatures drop sharply when the sun goes down, especially in winter. In the Johannesburg area, at an altitude of more than 1,600m, summer temperatures rarely reach more than 30°C. Winters are warm and dry, but while the thermometer reads 20°C on average in the day time, it may drop to 5°C at night.

Precious rainfall

Rainfall varies greatly from east to west. The country is virtually split in two, where the eastern half is well-suited to agriculture with more than 400mm of rainfall yearly, and the drier western side is better suited to cattle breeding.

The wettest region is the KwaZulu-Natal, which receives between 800 and 1,200mm of water each year, making tropical crops, including sugar cane, profitable. Around Johannesburg and in the Drakensberg, summer thunder storms are not uncommon in the late afternoon.

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