The Namibian landscape consists generally of five geographical areas, each with characteristic abiotic conditions and vegetation with some variation within and overlap between them: the Central Plateau, the Namib Desert, the Escarpment, the Bushveld, and the Kalahari Desert. Although the climate is generally extremely dry, there are a few exceptions. The cold, north-flowing Benguela current accounts for some of the low precipitation.
The Central Plateau runs from north to south, bordered by the Skeleton Coast to the northwest, the Namib Desert and its coastal plains to the southwest, the Orange River to the south, and the Kalahari Desert to the east. The Central Plateau is home to the highest point in Namibia at Königstein elevation 2 606 metres (8 411 feet). Within the wide, flat Central Plateau is the majority of Namibia's population and economic activity. Windhoek, the nation's capital, is located here, as well as most of the arable land. Although arable land accounts for only 1% of Namibia, nearly half of the population is employed in agriculture.
The abiotic conditions here are similar to those found along the Escarpment, described below; however the topographic complexity is reduced. Summer temperatures in the area can reach 40° C during the summer, and in the winter, frosts are common.
The Namib Desert is a broad expanse of hyper-arid gravel plains and dunes that stretches along the entire coastline, which varies in width between 100 to many hundreds of kilometers. Areas within the Namib include the Skeleton Coast and the Kaokoveld in the north and the extensive Namib Sand Sea along the central coast. The sands that make up the sand sea are a consequence of erosional processes that take place within the Orange River valley and areas further to the south. As sand-laden waters drop their suspended loads into the Atlantic, onshore currents deposit them along the shore. The prevailing southwest winds then pick up and redeposit the sand in the form of massive dunes in the widespread sand sea. In areas where the supply of sand is reduced because of the inability of the sand to cross riverbeds, the winds also scour the land to form large gravel plains. In many areas within the Namib Desert, there is little vegetation with the exception of lichens found in the gravel plains, and in dry river beds where plants can access subterranean water.
The Great Escarpment swiftly rises to over 2000 meters. Average temperatures and temperature ranges increase as you move further inland from the cold Atlantic waters, while the lingering coastal fogs slowly diminish. Although the area is rocky with poorly developed soils, it is nonetheless significantly more productive than the Namib Desert. As summer winds are forced over the Escarpment, moisture is extracted as precipitation. The water, along with rapidly changing topography, is responsible for the creation of micro-habitats which offer a wide range of organisms, many of them endemic. Vegetation along the Escarpment varies in both form and density, with community structure ranging from dense woodlands to more shrubby areas with scattered trees. A number of Acacia species are found here, as well as grasses and other shrubby vegetation.
The Bushveld is found in northeastern Namibia along the Angolan border and in the so-called Caprivi Strip which is the vestige of a narrow corridor demarcated for the German Empire to access the Zambezi River. The area receives a significantly greater amount of precipitation than the rest of the county, averaging around 400 millimeters per year. Temperatures are also cooler and more moderate, with approximate seasonal variations of between 10° C and 30° C. The area is generally flat and the soils sandy, limiting their ability to retain water. Located adjacent to the Bushveld in north-central Namibia is one of nature's most spectacular features: the Etosha Pan. For most of the year it is a dry, saline wasteland, but during the wet season, it forms a shallow lake covering more than 6000 square kilometers. The area is ecologically important and vital to the huge numbers of birds and animals from the surrounding Savannah that gather in the region as summer drought forces them to the scattered waterholes that ring the pan.
The Kalahari Desert is perhaps Namibia's best known geographical feature. Shared with South Africa and Botswana, it has a variety of localized environments ranging from hyper-arid sandy desert, to areas that seem to defy the common definition of desert. One of these areas, known as the Succulent Karoo, is home to over 5000 species of plants, nearly half of them endemic; fully one third of the world's succulents are found in the Karoo.
Another feature of many parts of Namibia are isolated mountains that create micro-climates and habitat for organisms not adapted to life in the surrounding desert matrix. The Brandberg with a height of 2 579 meters in the southern Kunene region is Namibia's highest mountain. Other mountains are the Auas Mountain with its 2 479 m Von Moltkeblick peak, the Gamsberg (2 347 m), the Erongo Mountain (2 319 m), the Karas Mountain (2 202 m), the 1 900m Eros Mountain and Brukkaros (1 603 m), a well known sight between the southern towns of Keetmanshoop and Mariental.
Perennial rivers are found only on the country's borders, being the Orange River on the southern border and the Kunene, Okavango, Kwando and Zambesi Rivers on the northern border. In the south the Fish River Canyon is one of the wonders of Africa. The 161 km long, 27 km wide ravine with a maximum depth of 550m is surrounded by high, forbidding cliffs, and is gashed into the plateau with startling abruptness. The awesome grandeur of the canyon is surpassed only by the Grand Canyon in the United States of America.
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