From a humble dinghy to a series of superyacht sloops and a private island hideaway, Australian property developer Lang Walker talks Sophia Wilson through the Kokomo dynasty...
“My first Kokomo was a small dinghy, a VJ [Vaucluse Junior], back when I was kid. I used to race and that’s what got me hooked,” says straight-talking Lang Walker. Since his childhood exploits the name Kokomo has stuck, but the boats have changed dramatically, including three Ed Dubois-designed sailing superyachts. It is in his office, with swing music playing softly in the background, that Walker, who is now in his early seventies, is telling me about his lifelong love affair with sailing and the sea.
However, rather than a superyacht, his latest Kokomo is actually an island in Fiji’s Great Astrolabe Reef, which Walker has transformed into a luxurious barefoot resort, with 21 beachfront villas and six luxury residences. His “office” is an expansive white table on the shaded terrace of his residence, with uninterrupted views across a palm tree strewn beach to a glistening reef beyond. “It’s a beautiful spot here,” he says. “In a way that is how it started because I thought ‘I wouldn’t mind having a house on this beach’. In the end, we got the house and everything else that went with it.”
It might seem strange for Walker to take on such an ambitious project at this stage, but for those who followed the evolution of his three Kokomo sailing superyachts it will be less of a surprise. His first was a 42 metre sloop designed by the late Ed Dubois, with interiors by RWD and built by New Zealand’s Alloy Yachts (a combination that remained unchanged through the following two builds). “The 42 metre was launched for the 2000 America’s Cup down in Auckland,” recalls Walker. “We also raced in the Millennium Cup there.”
Five years later Walker decided to expand and set about the build of a 52 metre sloop. But no sooner had the champagne hit the hull than it became clear that Walker still had unfinished business when it came to superyacht design. “The day I launched that boat I could see that there were probably about 20 or 30 things that I wanted to change about it,” he says. “So, the same day I booked a slot for the next one and set to work tweaking all the things I wanted to change.”
The main focus for Walker was improving performance and further enhancing the social spaces – minor modifications included modernising the design of the wheelhouse and creating storage for two hard bottom tenders under the foredeck. The greatest challenge of the third build was the introduction of a keel mechanism that allows the draught to be adjusted from 8.7 metres to 4.6 metres. This system adds stability for speed without ruling out shallower cruising grounds. At the time Dubois described the project as a “big step up” in sailing yacht design and in 2011 Kokomo won the Naval Architecture Award at the ShowBoats Design Awards and was a finalist at the World Superyacht Awards.
It also proved to be third time lucky for Walker, who still spends three months per year on sailing yacht Kokomo. The yacht has spent time in the South Pacific but the height of her mast means it is not possible for her to pass through the Panama or Suez canals and it’s a long slog around the capes. As a result, her permanent base is in Palma and Walker spends the majority of his time on board in the Mediterranean. “My favourite areas are the top end of Sardinia and the bottom end of Corsica. There is always very good breeze through the Strait of Bonifacio. For a yacht her size she is very, very fast.”
Alongside his Kokomo superyachts Walker’s need for speed has also been fulfilled by racing Farr 40s. “I have always been in racing and sailing ever since I was a kid, then about 15 years ago got into the Farr 40 class. When they had a really big fleet I had one in Sydney, one in Europe and one in America and we would do the regattas all around the world. It was pretty exciting sailing and good, close one-design racing,” he says. The Kokomo team notched up many victories, including back-to-back wins in the Farr 40 Australian Championships and the Australian Farr 40 circuit in 2007 and 2008. After a short break, Walker returned to race in the Farr 40 Australian Nationals in 2016 despite twice having undergone replacement hip surgery.
As well as his love of racing Walker is also a passionate diver, a hobby which was born during his spell in the navy. “I did all my clearance diving and instructing courses back in the navy when I was 20. From that date on I have been a very avid diver,” he says. “It took me a few years after that to be able to afford a nice big boat. We have a 39 metre powerboat, which we have had for 23 years, which is really our dive boat and we have gone all over the Pacific with it.”
It was diving that led him to his latest Kokomo – the island of Yaukuve Levu, which had been abandoned part way through development following the coup in Fiji in 2006. The island was initially found by a friend visiting on one of his boats and it took more than a year for Walker to be persuaded to visit in person – “I didn’t think I needed an island in Fiji,” he says, smiling. However, once confronted with the fantastic diving and the ability to moor a yacht, even at low tide, Walker’s imagination began to take hold, despite his wife Sue questioning whether they really needed to own a Pacific island.
After climbing to the top of the hill on the island to get phone signal, a deal with the bank was made and the Kokomo Private Island project began. “I bought the island for A$2.8 million and that was the cheapest part. From there it sort of went downhill,” he says. “I thought maybe A$10 million and 18 months to two years to get it up and running. It ended up taking five years and the budget went many, many times over.”
Walker is no stranger to complex regeneration projects as he has spent the past half a decade delivering thousands of construction ventures across Australia, Malaysia, America and Canada. “We are working on one of the largest commercial projects in Australia to date called Collins Square. It is very challenging; we started with a terrible block of land with an old railway shed on it. The other big project we are doing at the moment is rejuvenating all of the commercial precinct in Sydney at Parramatta Square,” he says, pulling a pile of designs to show me from across the table. “This is probably about A$2.7 billion upon completion.”
The Parramatta Square area is thought to be one of the oldest parts of Sydney. It is where Captain Cook and Captain Phillip went to look for fertile land and it is no coincidence that it has a nautical connection. “A lot of projects that we have done over the years have been based around water,” he says. “Either over the harbour or around the harbour, or restoring and reclaiming land.” One of his most famous projects in the late 1990s was the regeneration of Finger Wharf at Woolloomooloo, which transformed the 400 metre long former wool processing port into a mixed-use development including 300 apartments. It is now home for Walker and his wife when they are not on board or visiting the island.
Despite his experience in the construction industry, Kokomo represents a completely new challenge for Walker. “I have never run a resort before. I don’t know the first thing about it and we had a bit of a rocky road there,” he admits. But as with superyachts, perseverance has paid off and since opening in April last year Kokomo Private Island has already established itself as one of the world’s leading barefoot luxury resorts.
Walker has also been approached by multiple chains to add Kokomo Private Island to their management pools. “I decided that is something maybe I can do at some point but I want to keep it as a family destination and something that is unique, not part of a big chain. Some days I still think to myself ‘why?’, but it is just a challenge whether I can actually do it,” he says.
Kokomo Private Island is not the only time that Walker has mixed business with pleasure. His boundless energy means that no holiday is complete without a project. “Many years ago I was in Aspen with the family and I pulled a muscle and couldn’t ski,” he explains. “So I went on a search for real estate from one end of the valley to the other. Eventually I found a golf course owner who was in financial distress. It was a place called Buttermilk. So I bought all of his real estate assets and spent the next 15 years developing those out. That was in my spare time, so I had something to do when I was on holiday. We sold the last of those houses last Christmas for US$25 million. It was quite interesting.”
While Walker is certainly not in vacation mode on his island – constantly on his golf cart checking up on every detail of the property or answering his James Bond themed phone ring – it is clearly done with pleasure. His and his wife’s presence on Kokomo creates a relaxed atmosphere. The pair spend roughly three months a year there and will happily join guests for dinner or for snorkelling trips to the reef.
Family remains at the heart of the island and that is why this project means so much to him. “The three kids and the eight grandkids are always descending on the place. The grandkids never want to leave,” he says. “Before we opened my granddaughter asked ‘Grandpa, are we going to let other people stay on our island?’. She wasn’t sure to begin with but she is OK with it now as there are lots of other kids her age, so it’s fun.”
It appears that this Kokomo has finally done enough to satiate Walker’s love of a challenge. “Sue asked me recently ‘Are you done with houses in Aspen? Are you done with yachts? Are we nearly done with the island?’ And my answer was ‘yes’ to all of those questions. It’s not the end as I have got to deliver a lot of the things we have on professionally but it’s certainly the end of hobby projects. This one will keep me busy for a long time.”
Sitting in Walker’s island office it is easy to see why – it is a pretty spectacular Kokomo to complete the set.
Images: Craig Greenhill/Saltwater Images; Robert Harding; Tim Wright