When you think of Zambia, what comes to mind? Perhaps searching for big cats in one of the country’s vast national parks, hippo spotting along the Zambezi River or rafting beneath the spray of thundering Victoria Falls? All admirable pursuits, no doubt, but for an off-the-beaten-track Zambia experience, the country’s little visited north has “hidden gem” written all over it.

Some 1,000km from the artsy capital Lusaka is the Moto Moto museum, remarkable for its incongruous location at the tip of the Northern Province in the dusty town of Mbala, from where the road tumbles down to Tanzania and the Great Rift Valley. The quirky museum houses a large and surprisingly diverse collection for such an out-of-the-way location, much of it detailing the cultural life and history of the local Bemba people – from the lives of the hunter gatherers to the days of the slave trade – and just when you think it is all getting a bit staid, there is a side room full of pickled reptiles.

Prehistory fans should set their sights on Kasama, around 150km south of Mbala. A laid back town full of wide, leafy streets and handsome tin-roofed colonial homes, it resides at the centre of one of the densest rock art sites in Africa, the Mwela rock paintings. Imprinted in caves and on rock faces in an area of around 100sqkm are more than 1,000 paintings that tell the story of human and animal life some 2,000 years ago, when stone age hunters roamed Africa’s valleys and plains in search of lion and buffalo.

There is a wide variety of paintings to be found here, from mesmerising geometric patterns to genitalia drawings signifying fertility rites and incredibly fluid illustrations depicting people, animals and ceremonies. Pay a visit to Mwela’s most famous site, the Sumina Lion Cave, to see a depiction of the soul of a lion entering the body of the hunter in a trance.

The best way to locate the various rock paintings is by finding a local guide. At the Mwela Rocks National Monument, some 4.5km outside Kasama, you can hire one of the site caretakers to show you as many paintings as you wish.

Deep in the wilderness, 150km to the south of Kasama sits the romantic and unique Shiwa Ng’andu. This grand red brick country estate, with its perfectly manicured lawns, makes for an unusual sight after hours bumping along the Great North Road. The labour of love of eccentric English aristocrat Sir Stewart Gore-Brown, it is approached down a long, tree-lined drive, flanked by farm buildings, settlements and workers houses, giving it the air of an old feudal domain. Gore-Brown bought the 10,000 acres in 1914 as a young colonial officer. Intending to build a private English kingdom in the Zambian wilds, he shipped out grand pianos and fine wines from the mother country, while local labourers reproduced traditional English furniture from native wood and lugged building materials through the bush for hours. Guided tours of the house and surrounding estate are a must. Overnight guests can loll about in four poster beds and roll top baths, enjoy candlelit dinners and peruse the family heirlooms at their leisure.

If all that history gets to be a bit much, there is also plenty of water-based fun to be had in the Northern Province. This part of the country is ridiculously well-endowed when it comes to waterfalls; there are around 20, most of which are protected heritage sites.

The most famous is Kalambo Falls near the Tanzanian border. The second highest falls in Africa, after South Africa’s Tugela Falls, it cascades for an uninterrupted 220m into a gorge where rare maribou storks nest. At the rainforest-shrouded Chishimba Falls on the Luombe River in the Kasama District, three successive falls tumble into one another at a site that is revered as sacred by the Bemba people. Beautiful Lumangwe, a wide wall of water that thunders into the Kalungwishi River filling the air with fine mist, looks like Victoria Falls in miniature. It sits in the far northwest of the Northern Province near the town of Chipembe.

For swimming in crisp, clear waters that are clean enough to drink, head for Mutinondo Wilderness off the Great North Road between Lusaka and Shiwa N’gandu, one of the most beautiful spots in the country. Here, 10,000 hectares of woodland, glades and rivers are dominated by sweeping whale-back hills in various hues of green, brown and purple that tower above the landscape like sleeping beasts. Float silently down rivers, past trees and wildflowers (canoes are also available from Mutinondo Wilderness Lodge for the swimming-averse), and you will feel as though you are somewhere that has been untouched for hundreds of years. Other activities include horse riding, hiking and hunting for the largest edible mushroom in the world, which grows up to 1m in diameter. The lodge has a well-equipped campsite, or for a bit more luxury, open-fronted eco-chalets cling to the hillsides providing outstanding morning views.