The Cheetahs remain winless, but it required a dramatic late score from Wallaby Henry Speight to earn Ulster a draw.
The Cheetahs held a 39-32 lead with the full-time hooter having already sounded, when Speight stretched out for a try and Billy Burns landed the conversion for a 39-all draw.
It is the first game this season the Cheetahs have not lost.
However, they will be bitterly disappointed that they let a win slip from their fingers.
It was a game of high drama in Bloemfontein, as both teams leave with two points for the draw and a four-try bonus point.
The result keeps Ulster at the head of the Conference B table – albeit in advance of the remainder of the Round Four fixtures – on 15 points and the only unbeaten side in the conference.
The first half was an engaging and well-matched affair, with attacking flair from both sides and two tries apiece.
Ulster were caught cold in the first 90 seconds, centre Nico Lee exposing a gap off the back of a line-out and picking out flank Gerhard Olivier for an easy try. However, the visitors were back on terms within three minutes, Cave capitalising on some similarly slack defence from the South Africans to put Shanahan through for an unopposed run to the line.
Ulster’s South African prop Wiehahn Herbst had his match cut short, as a knock saw him replaced by Tom O’Toole within the first 10 minutes, and his side were fortunate to survive another scare when lock JP du Preez broke through, only for Shanahan to bring him down and force a knock-on despite the size mismatch between the two.
However, the Cheetahs continued to belie their low standing at the foot of Conference A, deservedly taking the lead on 18 minutes through a Tian Schoeman penalty.
They had no answer for Ulster’s second try three minutes later, however, Shanahan again the author after a superb combination between the centre partnership, McCloskey with the offload and Cave drawing the chasers before picking out his scrumhalf.
Ulster, scenting blood, repeatedly kicked penalties to touch but failed to reap further points from any and, after losing Reidy to injury on 25 minutes, allowed the hosts back into the game on the half-hour mark.
Ten minutes of Cheetahs dominance came to a head with Rabz Maxwane eluding five tacklers as he waltzed through the centre of the Ulster defence and picked out his fellow wing William Small-Smith for the try just before the interval.
Good chasing from Nelson to put Maxwane under pressure got Ulster an advanced line-out early in the second period, and when the penalty came as the visitors probed the Cheetahs’ 22-metre area, Burns this time opted for the posts to level the scoreboard.
A high tackle by another of Ulster’s South Africans, Marcell Coetzee, in his own 22, however, set in motion a series of Ulster penalties, culminating in a yellow card for side entry for Alan O’Connor, and a subsequent rolling maul try for hooker Joseph Dweba.
Another Burns penalty quickly reduced the deficit to two, but patient work from the Cheetahs eventually paid dividends just after the hour mark when another highly effective rolling maul saw replacement hooker Jacques du Toit touch down try number three.
The Ulster reaction was exactly what was needed – replacement scrumhalf Stewart sprinting over the line after rapid offloads from Kernohan and McCloskey had left the tiring Cheetahs for dead.
Burns’ conversion attempt veered wide – his first miss of the match – but Ulster sensed the result was now there for the taking, and a 72nd-minute penalty to touch gave them the chance to showcase their own driving maul, referee Ben Whitehouse awarding the penalty try and sin-binning Charles Marais for illegally preventing the score by entering from the side.
The Ulster lead was frustratingly short-lived, however, and Maxwane clearly had failed to read the script, as he showed lightning-quick pace to latch onto an up-and-under for an impressive solo score. The Louis Fouche conversion, followed by a long-range penalty from the replacement flyhalf, looked to have settled matters with the Cheetahs seven points to the good with two minutes remaining.
However the drama was far from over, with Speight swivelling over from close-range as the clock ticked into the red zone, and Burns knocking over the conversion under intense pressure to secure the draw.
For the Cheetahs:
Tries: Olivier, Small-Smith, Dweba, Du Toit, Maxwane
Cons: Schoeman 3, Fouche
Pens: Schoeman, Fouche
Tries: Shanahan 2, Stewart, Penalty try, Speight
Cons: Burns 3, penalty try does not require a conversion
Pens: Burns 2
Yellow cards: Alan O’Connor (Ulster, 53 – repeated infringements, in at the side of the maul), Charles Marais (Cheetahs, 73 – cynical foul, illegally collapsing a maul()
Cheetahs: 15 Malcolm Jaer, 14 William Small-Smith, 13 Bernhard Janse van Rensburg, 12 Nico Lee, 11 Rabz Maxwane, 10 Tian Schoeman, 9 Tian Meyer (captain), 8 Niell Jordaan, 7 Junior Pokomela, 6 Gerhard Olivier, 5 Jean-Pierre du Preez, 4 Walt Steenkamp, 3 Aranos Coetzee, 2 Joseph Dweba, 1 Retshegofaditswe Nche.
Replacements: 16 Jacques du Toit, 17 Charles Marais, 18 Günther Janse van Vuuren, 19 Justin Basson, 20 Stephan Malan, 21 Shaun Venter, 22 Louis Fouche, 23 Ryno Eksteen.
Ulster: 15 Will Addison, 14 Craig Gilroy, 13 Henry Speight, 12 Stuart McCloskey, 11 Angus Kernohan, 10 Billy Burns, 9 Dave Shanahan, 8 Marcell Coetzee, 7 Sean Reidy, 6 Matt Rea, 5 Kieran Treadwell, 4 Alan O’Connor, 3 Wiehahn Herbst, 2 Rob Herring (captain), 1 Eric O’Sullivan.
Replacements: 16 John Andrew, 17 Andrew Warwick, 18 Tom O’Toole, 19 Jean Deysel, 20 Nick Timoney, 21 Jonny Stewart, 22 Angus Curtis, 23 Darren Cave.
Referee: Ben Whitehouse (Wales)
Assistant referees: Sam Grove-White (Scotland), Ben Crouse (South Africa)
TMO: Johan Greeff (South Africa)