Epic story of how Rency Thomas tamed the Ganges

TNIE catches up with Rency Thomas, whose solo, human-powered expedition covering the entire course of River Ganga, is heading for a Guinness record
Ganga seen snaking through the valleys of Uttarakhand.
Ganga seen snaking through the valleys of Uttarakhand.

KOCHI: During his college days, Rency Thomas G, who hails from Thiruvananthapuram, was the fourth-best pilot in the NCC Air Wing across India. A career in the Armed Forces seemed destined.

That’s when tragedy struck. A rare form of arthritis left him in excruciating pain and bedridden for months. His military dreams were snuffed out, and doctors expressed concerns about whether Rency would be able to walk again.

He did, far sooner than medical predictions. And now, two decades later, the 36-year-old is busy filling out application forms for claiming a Guinness World Record after having mapped the entirety of the Ganga through a combination of trekking, mountain biking, and kayaking — a never-before-done feat which he accomplished in under 100 days.

Inspiration & training

The inspiration for this adventure came to Rency in 2015, when he was leading a group of explorers, including the renowned Ann Bancroft, the first woman to finish expeditions to the Arctic and the Antarctic, along the Ganga.

“That was the first such expedition of its kind. No one had done it before,” Rency recalls. “I was working for an adventure company back then. I conceptualised and executed this expedition. However, along the way, it struck me how amazing it would be to pull off a similar expedition relying solely on human power.”

Getting the necessary funds, working out the logistics, and the tangle of work and life proved big obstacles to embark of the journey then. The catalyst for chasing the dream came by way of another devastating arthritis episode.

Kayaking on the flat waters of Ganga. the lifeline of the country.
Kayaking on the flat waters of Ganga. the lifeline of the country.

“That was in December 2022. I was in Kerala to attend the death anniversary of my mother. Another arthritis attack left me completely drained. All my joints were affected. I lost the dexterity of my fingers, even their mobility,” says Rency.

“To be honest, I was scared. I knew then that I simply had to finish the expedition in 2023. It was my biggest dream.”

His condition worsened in the first few months of 2023. By March, Rency was suffering from bouts of wheezing. “As Reiter’s Syndrome is an auto-immune disease, there’s no cure. Only its symptoms can be alleviated. The pain, thankfully, began to subside by June. But by then, work had come calling. I was to lead a team from Indonesia in Ladakh. It was already August when I began preparations for my dream expedition. I had just two months,” Rency says.

What perhaps helped Rency get in shape before October — when the journey was slated — is his decades-long experience in outdoor sports.

“The doctors’ advice is to rest, to sit idle. But, for me, that’s when I have the most pain. Over the years, I have found that it is better to suffer the discomforts of being outdoors — amidst nature — than wallow in isolation. By being outdoors, I keep my internal pain at bay,” says Rency.

Challenges & wonders

Though he had ample experience as an adventurer, the Ganga expedition was unlike any other. The fact that it had not been done before said enough already. Now, Rency was going to do it in under 100 days, all alone.

“Though the trek was to begin in October, it was delayed due to financial constraints. We were worried as access to Gaumukh usually gets closed due to snowfall around that time. Thankfully, that year, it only closed much later, a few days after I had begun the expedition — on November 4,” says Rency, who runs Live360 Adventures in Manali.

Rency bikes his
way to Devprayag,
Rency bikes his way to Devprayag, Uttarakhand.

Before he could heave a sigh of relief, another disaster struck. While navigating the difficult terrain to Devprayag, the derailleur of his mountain bike got damaged in a crash. “i sustained no injuries. But breaking a part of this advanced bicycle in this remote region meant days of delay. i camped at the nehru institute of Mountaineering in uttarkashi for a few days until a replacement bike was brought to me. With that, i reached Devprayag,” rency says. next, white-water kayaking. This leg of the journey to rishikesh was arguably the most challenging. However, rency navigated the white-water stretches with ease. “After that, it was near-still water. The ganga becomes very flat. While this could likely mean less difficulty, that’s not the case. That was the longest stretch — a nearly 2,000km journey,” says Rency. indeed. Rency was paddling through the Gangetic Plain, where, if the river is about 1-2km wide, the next five kilometres were marshy, wet terrain.

“Also, the river divides into many channels here. Of them, only a couple have currents;

the rest are false channels,” he recalls. “One can’t rely on GPS or satellite imagery as every year, after the monsoon, the river changes course. Eight monsoons had passed since the last

time i went that way.” Further compounding the situation was fog, reducing visibility to less than 50m some days. “I lost a lot of days on account of this. it was a race against time,” says Rency.

Accompanying the fog was also a slew of psychological challenges. “i was on the river for over 50 days. The delays, isolation, the tricky channels… they all ate my spirit. I was nearly defeated. But, some unseen force pushed me on, and the river goddess always guided me along the right path,” Rency adds. To make up for the challenges that it threw Rency’s way, the ganga also opened up its bosom of wonders — sights of dolphins, the close-knitting of the communities that sustain off the river, colonies of migratory birds, vast stretches of golden-hued farmlands.

“There’s a lot of talk on how polluted the ganga is. But what would that serve? We have to talk about how beautiful the ganga is. i believe that would spur more people to safeguard it,” rency asserts. “This river is the lifeline of India.”

On February 6, after 95 days of adventure, rency was at ganga Sagar, where the ganga meets the sea. He had travelled 2,750km solo along the mighty river, all while overcoming the difficulties imposed by his medical condition. it is a feat many pundits believe is deserving of a guinness record. “The main aim of my journey,” Rency adds, “is to showcase that those with arthritis are also capable of doing big, extraordinary things. Our difficulties don’t define us. My wife Ponni and I are planning to release a documentary of the journey to spread this m e s s a g e further.” We will look forward to that, Rency.

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