Watch Your Six

My first title of “Safety & Security” did not sound very fun or interesting; after all, that would certainly not be the typical travel tale one writes home about.  However, “Watch Your Six” has a bit of intrigue, does it not?   Watch Your Six is a term I recently learned, and learned well.

Working my way through an extended visit to South Africa, I have had a unique opportunity to experience real life twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, in a variety of settings.    A common theme that permeates every aspect of every day is the need for safety and security, which frankly caused a great deal of concern and stress.    Here I share a few of my stories and observations:

Electrified Fence

I stayed in a small bed & breakfast compound, with an electrified fense surrounding it.   I had arrived late at night and it wasn’t until my next day’s orientation that I learned about the fence; it took a moment to sink in.  I did not expect it,  and it a first time experience for me.    Apparently the electricity isn’t enough to kill me if I accidentally touched it, but I was not willing to test that theory.    Local hoodlums (polite word used here) can wiggle their way under fences by digging shallow troughs, so buried reinforcements in the ground to prevent that.  Nearly every home, lodge, hotel, apartment complex, as well as many stores and office buildings (that I have seen), has high concrete walls topped by electrified fencing and/or barbed wire surrounding it.

Pedestrian Traffic

In many places in the world, walking along the shoulder of highways is illegal, however here is seems the norm.  On my daily outings it has never failed that I see dozens, if not hundreds, walking along the highway always against traffic.  Besides the obvious concern of these pedestrians being too close for comfort, an additional risk is that it is common for a driver drive towards/on the shoulder (over the outside painted line) so another car can pass from behind; It is not hard to imagine the conflict and chaos when cars and people try to share the road’s shoulder.  Also, many roads are not properly lit at night, and seeing pedestrians is nearly impossible.  It is surprising that more are not injured or killed.

Invisible Security

True story:  Lodge guest gets up for an early morning jog, unknowingly crosses an invisible security beam, and silent alarm goes off. Lodge owner/manager loads rifle, tracks the jogger through rifle sight, then slowly realizes the jogger is bona fide legitimate paying guest.    Lodge manager safeties the rifle, has a friendly chat with the guest, and guest doesn’t jog in the early morning hours any more.

Watch your six.


This is not necessary a security issue, but when showers and faucets produce water hot enough to scald skin and steam eyeglasses, it is definitely a safety issue.   Mixing valves, which monitor and control the amount of hot and cold water coming out a faucet, are not standard and so I have experienced multiple scaldings during this adventure.  Ouch.

Armed Response

Most, if not all, security companies provide an armed response to a burglary or home invasion.  Every security vehicle I saw around town boldly advertised “armed response” on the side of their vehicle.  Of concern to these responders is the fact when they are responding to a call for help that the call could very well be a set-up.

Metal Bars

Most windows and doors have metal security bars built into the frame (some bars are obvious add-ons).  It is rare to find screens to keep out mosquitoes and other undesirables, but the bars keep out the bad guys, one hopes.

Watch your six.


Carjackings and robberies are unfortunately not rare occurrences.  Drivers remain on high alert at every intersection and as a white female, I am an especially easy target.    I was told one trick of the bad guys is to approach a car when  stopped at a traffic signal, with the attempt of trying to sell something to the driver.  While the driver rebuffs the seller, the seller “cases” the back seat to see what items are there, and “marks” the back door, perhaps with bubble gum, so at the next light the seller’s partner will know which door to attack

Watch your six.

On Safari

Wildlife security:  Keep your hands to yourself and your body inside any vehicle if you are on a game drive.  Safari Guides share that animals see a game viewing vehicle filled with people as one big entity; once arms and heads start sticking out the windows, all bets are off!

Unsolicited Security

Young men often don fluorescent yellow vests and declare themselves as parking lot attendants.  They want to supervise a parked car while the driver is away, and upon the driver’s return to the safe and secure vehicle, hope to earn a tip.  Whether or not this unsolicited security is warranted doesn’t matter.  It keeps the young men off the streets and helps them earn small change.

Watch your six.

Hit the Ground

Cash-In-Transit is the term given to armored security vehicles that transfer money to and from banks.  Taking an opportunity to wander around a shopping plaza by myself, I watched with curiosity a team of security personnel, armed with automatic assault rifles, transfer cash in and out of one of three banks in the plaza.  Later I was advised that I should have removed myself from the area because the Cash-In-Transit vehicles are frequently attacked and robbed, and additionally that if a robbery does occur while I am present, I should “hit the ground”.

Border Crossing

While sitting in my car at the Mozambican border, waiting (and waiting) to exit the country, I watched several young men squirm their way through an obvious hole in the border “fence”.    Entering and exiting the country, they seemed to not have time or interest to go through the proper immigration procedure.  Perhaps they didn’t have passports, perhaps they just couldn’t be bothered.  Sneaking through in broad daylight, they appeared fearless.  Regardless, one can’t help but wonder why they needed to ignore security protocol…

Safety Tips Brochure

A tourism Visitors Safety Tips brochure lists over fifty precautions “to ensure that your stay is as pleasant and safe as possible”.  While many tips seem typical and reasonable, I found it unusual that tourists are advised to NOT stop and ask people for directions and that tourists must try to make eye contact with everyone around them.   I too was taught to make sure I make eye contact with anyone who walked by or seemed to be watching me.  By making eye contact, you’re letting that person know you are aware of him and it decreases the chance for a mugging or worse.

Guard the Food!

Probably my only fun and potentially humorous safety lesson was to learn why refrigerators are kept behind security cages.  Private bungalows in Kruger National Park have small open-air kitchens on their front porches, conveniently next to each bungalow’s own fire pit/grill.   Each outdoor kitchen is outfitted with a refrigerator, sink, stove and basic necessities for grilling and dining, and the guests must open the metal cage before accessing their refrigerator.   I was concerned that food had to be locked up because of unsavory neighbors; I was corrected that the cages are the only way to keep the monkeys out!

Watch Your Six

So, what does “watch your six” actually mean?  It is another piece of safety advice that has been given to me.   Imagine a clock, with 12 o’clock representing in front of you, 3 o’clock referring to your right side, etc.  Watch your six means watch your back, with six representing an imaginary position of six o’clock, (behind you).

South Africans have learned to live with these issues every day.   I temporarily lived with them, and I didn’t like it.

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6 comments on “Watch Your Six

  1. Yes I remember the high security & plentiful pedestrians. An unfortunate testimony to world conditions but a necessary evil to enjoy the splendor a of a beautiful country

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