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Diagnosed With Arthritis At 20, I’ve Spent 100 Days Kayaking on River Ganga

Rency Thomas was just 20 when he was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. While he always dreamt of becoming an Air Force pilot, his diagnosis motivated him to take refuge in nature. Seeking adventure, he is now on a 100-day journey, kayaking and cycling across the river Ganga.

Diagnosed With Arthritis At 20, I’ve Spent 100 Days Kayaking on River Ganga

While there was considerable disturbance on the other side of the line due to the poor network, I could distinctly hear the enthusiastic voice of Rency Thomas. 

The 36-year-old outdoor professional, Rency, is on a unique mission: a solo voyage to navigate the Ganga River in 100 days. This one-of-a-kind expedition relies solely on human-powered resources, including biking, kayaking, and walking.

Tackling the mammoth task of covering the Ganga, which spans over 2,600 km, Rency’s journey becomes even more inspiring when considering that he battles rheumatoid arthritis.

“I am racing against time as I am not sure for how long my body will be able to take such adventures,” he tells The Better India

Finding passion in lost dreams

Born and raised in Kanyakumari, Tamil Nadu, Rency had always been an outdoor enthusiast.

“I loved the outdoors and had nurtured only one dream all my life—to become an Air Force pilot,” he recalls.

For him, flying an aircraft was the ultimate dream, and he worked towards it for most of his young adult life. While in college, he was already an NCC Air Wing Cadet, flying the Microlight Aircraft (a small and lightweight aeroplane designed to be simple and easy to fly, often used for recreational purposes).

“The symptoms started to show in college. That is when my life changed drastically. Visits to hospitals and consultations turned out to be arthritis. Being diagnosed with such a disease at a young age can break or make your perspective on life,” he says.

Rency's expedition of tapping the river Ganga is completely human-powered
Rency’s expedition of tapping the river Ganga is completely human-powered. Picture Credit: Rency Thomas Team

Recalling the initial days of his diagnosis, he mentions that he was left completely crippled and bed bound. “I had lost the use of my left leg and there was a lot of muscle contraction which made it impossible for me to do anything,” he says. 

While aspiring to become a pilot and joining the Indian Air Force, Rency received medical advice to avoid physical activities.

“I was heartbroken. I didn’t know what to do with myself. Everyone emphasised that the Air Force wouldn’t accept someone with an illness like arthritis. It was a harsh reality, and it took me some time to accept the drastic change in my life,” he recalls.

Amidst the struggle with pain and mental agony, Rency lost the only dream he had ever nurtured. “It’s almost like restarting everything,” he says, acknowledging that “the symptoms can reoccur, and there is really no stopping this disease, only preventing.”

Despite the pain and the shattered dream, Rency decided to emerge stronger. “I had always loved being outdoors, and I refused to let my dream be shattered this way. I chose to learn light aircraft flying,” he adds.

“Coming from a middle-class family, and after completing various courses, I realised I was burdened with a lot of student loans. I had to do something,” he explains.

He initiated a startup in Bengaluru, which unfortunately had to close due to logistical problems. He then moved to Manali to establish his travel startup, Live360 Adventures.

The startup gave wings to Rency’s outdoorsy spirit. “I don’t know when I might lose the functioning of another part of my body. I recently had an episode that left very little mobility in two of my fingers,” he shares. 

When Rency mentions a time crunch, he truly means it. “I had been on a motor expedition across the Ganga in 2015. Since then, I have felt this sense of urgency in my head to undertake this solo journey without the motors,” he adds.

Traversing the majestic Ganga

On November 4, 2023, Rency packed his bags and with a coordinating team of three, embarked on his adventure.

Twenty-five days into the journey, Rency is currently in Sangara, about 25 km downstream from the Narora barrage.

Reflecting on his adventure so far, he shares, “I started from Gaomukh, the starting point of Gangotri, and completed the trek in a single day. The next day, I began my cycling journey from Gangotri to Devprayag — the place where Alaknanda and Bhagirathi converge to form the Ganga.” 

Till Devprayag, Rency used a mountain bike and then switched to kayaking. 

If the weather conditions are clear, Rency is expecting to finish his voyage within 100 days if not earlier.
If the weather conditions are clear, Rency is expecting to finish his voyage within 100 days if not earlier. Picture credit: Rency Thomas Team

“There are two types of kayaking — sea kayaking and white water kayaking. Given the Ganga’s strong currents, a small, more controllable kayak is used. The stretch from Devprayag to Rishikesh is a white-water section, and I completed it in three days,” he says.

There are two barrages in Haridwar and Rishikesh that the adventurer drove his mountain bike on. “After Haridwar, I switched back to kayaking. The waters are calmer, so I am sea kayaking here. Every night, I camp in a place accessible to the river by road,” he explains.

While the river has been rough and foggy with low visibility in the past two days, Rency anticipates that with better weather, he can finish the voyage within 100 days.

“Not to sound too confident, but if the weather is with me, I think the journey can be finished a few days early too,” he says. 

When discussing the challenges ahead, the only aspect that concerns Rency is the tidal activity of the river once it crosses the Farakka Barrage.

Close to the Bangladesh border, as the river approaches the sea, it experiences tidal activities. Navigating through this might pose a challenge, but Rency reassures, “My team is prepared for that.”

While alone on the river, admiring the majestic landscapes, Rency acknowledges that there have been moments when he questioned the purpose of the entire expedition.

“I start to wonder why I signed up for this when the conditions become tough and painful. The river is so wide, with numerous channels, and suddenly you find yourself stuck alone in a sand bed,” he reflects.

“When I was first diagnosed with arthritis, I felt like I had lost something. It was no fault of mine how my life turned out. The thought that I will never lose in my life is my fuel when conditions get tough. It is said that ‘zeher hi zeher ko katata hai’ (The only antidote to poison is poison), and that is how I am approaching my pain. I will beat it with pain,” he declares.

“It’s easy for people facing similar conditions like mine to lose heart and stop living. I experienced that too for a while, but I want to convey that it is possible. Whatever you’re dreaming, if you push yourself enough, you can achieve it,” he adds.

If you wish to track Rency’s incredible journey, you can click here

(Edited by Padmashree Pande)

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