In order to subdivide Southern Africa into physiographical regions we use topography, height above sealevel and geological structure as guidelines. Although political and administrative regions sometimes have physiographical boundaries, they cannot be used to determine physical patterns and distribution of plant and animal species. And then there’s the illogical regions created by the tourism industry, that have no meaning beyond a pure marketing strategy and simply causes overall confusion.
Southern Africa is divided into three major topographical zones, namely a plateau, an escarpment and a peripheral or coastal belt.
The plateau forms the central part of Southern Africa and is between 600 and 1800 metres above sealevel, with a few exceptions like the Lesotho Highlands. It is shaped like a flat dish and, because of this, nearly all rivers drain inland towards the Kalahari-basin in the northwest, which forms the base of the plateau. The sides of the “dish” are further subdivided into regions based on their height above sealevel and underlaying geological structure, namely the Highveld, the Bushveld and the Middle Veld.
The escarpment is a sudden change in height between the plateau and peripheral area, with mountains like the Roggeveldberg, Nuweveldberg and Kamiesberg building it up at certain places, and generally follows a line parallel to the coastline. In the northwest the escarpment flattens out into northern Namaqualand and Namaland; and allows the Orange River to reach the Atlantic Ocean. As such the escarpment doesn’t contain any proper physiographical regions, but is rather the boundary between those of the plateau and the coastal belt; except again in the northwest where Namaqualand crosses over it onto the plateau.
The peripheral or coastal belt lies between the escarpment and the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. It is not a true coastal belt, as found in other regions of the world, since it is covered by numerous large and small mountain ranges.