The northern half of Africa stretches down from the fertile coast bordering the Mediterranean Sea, through vast areas of desert and savanna, into the forests of the west and central Africa. Apart from the Atlas Mountains, the Ethiopian Highlands and Saharan ranges, much of the region is a level plateau.

In the far north of Africa, the countries bordering the coast benefit from natural resources of oil and gas. They also rely on tourism and the manufacture of textiles and carpets. The population is mostly Arabs. Berbers, an ancient native people, live in the uplands of Morocco.

South of the Sahara, agriculture is the primary industry of many countries. Rivers such as the Nile, Niger and Senegal provide essential water with which to irrigate crops. However, in many countries such as Mauritania and Mali, drought is a recurrent problem. In the driest areas, nomadic cattle-herders travel vast distances in search of good grazing.

There are many different peoples living in Northern Africa. Conflict between them often leads to long and devastating wars. The combination of war, drought and widespread poverty has led to terrible famines in Ethiopia and Sudan.

West Africa has a wetter climate, and crops such as coffee, bananas, cocoa, groundnuts and citrus fruits are grown. For many years, timber has been an important product of countries such as the Cote d’Ivoire, but this was carried out at such a rate that vast areas of the forest have now disappeared. Mining of oil and metal ores is a rich resource, but due to poor government and frequent wars, many countries are still impoverished.

Many people in Northern Africa live in small towns or villages, producing just enough food and goods for themselves. Others crowd into the cities, looking for work. They often have to live in very poor conditions on the outskirts of the city.

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The Congo basin covers much of central Africa. Here, the mighty Congo River winds through dense rainforest, where animals such as the rare mountain gorilla and a host of bird species live.

 To the south and east are high plateaux, with a cooler, drier climate. Much of the land is flat grassland, called savanna, where animals such as giraffes, elephants and lions roam. In the southwest, the savanna gives way to areas of hot, dry desert. In the east, deep valleys, high volcanic mountains and huge lakes have formed along a split in the Earth’s crust, known as the Great Rift Valley.

Southern Africa is rich in natural resources such as oil, metals (particularly copper and gold) and diamonds. Mining is therefore a vitally important industry. Tourism is also important to the savanna regions, where large national parks have been set up to protect the wildlife. In the eastern highlands, crops of tea and coffee are grown for export. Cattle are farmed for their meat and dairy products.

Outside South Africa and the Copper Belt (southern Congo and northern Zambia), large industrial areas are scarce. Countries such as Angola and Mozambique, with fertile land and rich resources, are nevertheless poverty-stricken due to years of civil war. Many people are farmers, and produce only enough food for themselves.

There are many hundreds of different tribal groups in Southern Africa, with many different languages and customs. Violent clashes between rival groups are frequent. In the worst affected regions, millions of people have fled to neighbouring countries to escape the conflicts.

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The second largest continent after Asia, Africa is almost completely surrounded by water, apart from the narrow point at which it joins on to Asia. The north of the continent is mostly hot, barren desert, edged with coastal areas that are cooler and wetter in winter.

Further south, the desert gives way to areas of flat grassland. The Equator runs right through the centre of Africa. The countries on or close to the Equator are dominated by the largest area of tropical rainforest outside South America. Here the climate is hot and wet.

The rainforest is home to many different plants and animals, including gorillas and chimpanzees. Many rivers weave their way through central Africa. To the east and south are large areas of open grassland scattered with trees, known as savanna. Animals such as elephants, zebra and wildebeest, roam the savanna, along with predators such as lions, wild dogs and hyenas.


North of the Sahara desert, the people of Africa are mainly Arabs and Berbers, who follow the religion of Islam. South of the Sahara, most people are black. They follow a variety of religions. Much of Africa was at one time controlled by Europe, and today people of European descent still live there, mostly in the south.

Africa exports its natural resources of metals and oil, as well as crops such as coffee and cocoa. However, many African countries are poor compared to the rest of the world. Few have established manufacturing industries. Most people live in the countryside, and rely on producing only enough crops, or farming enough cattle to support their families. They suffer from frequent droughts, floods and periods of starvation. Wars between and within countries also threaten their lives.


The world’s largest desert, the Sahara stretches across an area of Northern Africa that is almost the size of the USA. It is constantly growing larger as the sparse grassland at its edges dies away. The Sahara is a hot desert, where rain may fail to fall for years on end. During the day, temperatures can reach over 50°C in the shade, but nights are often cold. There are areas of sand that often drift into large dunes, but much of the Sahara is made up of rocky ground and mountains.

Despite these harsh conditions, the Sahara desert is not without life. Animals that are specially adapted for life with little water and intense heat can survive there. Many take shelter in burrows during the day, coming out at night to feed.

People also live in the Sahara desert. Small towns are able to survive around oases in the desert. Groups of nomads also travel across the harsh landscape to trade in the town markets. For thousands of years, they carried their goods and supplies by camel, an animal that can cope extremely well with desert life. It also provided the nomads with milk and meat. Today motor vehicles are more often used to cross the desert.

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A part from a long range of mountains running down its eastern side, most of Australia is flat, hot and dry. It is rich in natural resources such as coal and minerals including gold, copper and iron. The vast interior, or outback, is mostly desert, or dry scrublands. To the east, this gives way to open grassland - stock-raising country, where Australia’s sheep and cattle ranches, or “stations”, are situated. With its millions of sheep, Australia is the world’s largest producer of wool.

Most Australians live around the coasts, where the climate is cooler and the land fertile. Crops such as wheat and tropical fruits are grown for export, and vineyards produce world-famous wines. A high proportion of people live in the largest cities, such as Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne. The cities have modern manufacturing industries.

About 200 years ago, the British and other Europeans began to arrive on the shores of Australia. They routed many of the native Australians already living there, and seized their land. Today, much of Australia’s population is of European descent, although there are substantial numbers of immigrants from Asia. The small numbers of native Australians that remain are working to reclaim some of their land and sacred sites.


Like its neighbour, Australia, New Zealand is a prosperous country. It farms huge numbers of cattle and sheep, producing large quantities of wool, meat and dairy products for export. Its fertile land and warm climate also make it ideal for vineyards and fruit and vegetables. The power of New Zealand’s many rivers, and also the underground heat from volcanic activity on North Island, are harnessed through non-polluting electricity schemes.

The native peoples of New Zealand are the Maoris, who originally came from Polynesia. They still make up about nine per cent of the population, and have retained much of their culture and traditions.

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Lying off the east coast of mainland Asia, Japan is made up of four large islands, where most of the population live, and thousands of smaller ones. The four main islands are Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu and Shikoku. Much of Japan is covered with mountains, some of them volcanic. It is also densely forested. Winter is cold in the north, but the south of the country has mild winters and hot summers.

With limited land available for farming, and a lack of natural resources, Japan has turned to industry and technology for its livelihood. Today, it is a leading producer of cars, ships and electronic goods such as computers, televisions and cameras. It is also a powerful financial centre. Most people live in the cities, several of which have a population of over one million. Their buildings are designed to withstand the earthquakes that frequently occur.

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