Cardiff left Ellis Park empty-handed after the Emirates Lions raced into an early lead in the United Rugby Championship.
The Johannesburg outfit came flying out of the blocks and built a 17-6 lead in the 26 degree heat before Cardiff staged a comeback.
They had one try ruled out before Aled Summerhill and James Botham crossed to get within bonus-point territory at the very least.
However, the boot of Jordan Hendrikse kept the scoreboard ticking, with the hosts capping off the win by securing a bonus point in the final play.
Cardiff travelled back to South Africa after the game was postponed due to the emergence of the Omicron Covid-19 variant in November.
They returned without their Wales Six Nations contingent and it was not a trip without disruption, after the team’s flight from Cape Town to Johannesburg on Saturday morning was cancelled shortly before take-off.
The team arrived in the 1,724m altitude of Ellis Park following a poor performance in Belfast, which saw Ulster race into a 17-point lead after little more than 15 minutes, and the Blue and Blacks were targeting a much better start in Johannesburg.
They were braced for an early onslaught however, with the Lions typically flying out of the blocks and well accustomed to playing at altitude, and it took the hosts less than three minutes to open the scoring.
A monstrous 50:22 from fly-half Hendrikse gave them the perfect attacking platform on the five metre line and following two heavy forward drives, scrum-half Morne van den Berg darted over.
Hendriske added the extras and he soon exchanged penalties with Jarrod Evans, who was making his 100th first-team appearance for the club.
Evans added a second penalty on 12 minutes, after the Lions played the ball off their feet at the breakdown, and that brought the score to 10-6.
However, the hard work was undone when the visitors failed to claim the restart. They initially held the sizeable South Africans out but after giving away a penalty, the hosts went wide and with an overlap in the left corner Edwil van der Merwe acrobatically dived over.
Hendriske converted from the touchline to extend the Lions lead to 17-6 and they continued to press thanks to their giant front-five and fast-paced game behind.
It appeared ominous when 19 stone loosened Sti Sithole took the ball at pace close to the line but he was hit by a thunderous tackle from Josh Turnbull and spilled possession.
Cardiff were struggling to get any territory and while they began to grow into the game, the Lions struck with a third try in stunning fashion.
Full-back Quan Horn was a handful as he ran a kick back on the counter and a handful of phases they unlocked the Welsh defence thanks to Vincent Tshituka. He carried with intent and drew two defenders before offloading round the back.
Wandisile Simelane drew Matthew Morgan and put Van der Merwe in for his second, which Hendriske converted to make it 24-5.
One positive was the fact that every time Cardiff got into Lions territory, the hosts indiscipline showed. After Will Boyde won a turnover at the corner, Cardiff kicked to the corner and at the second time of asking, the back-rower powered over.
It was a major boost for Dai Young’s side but was quickly chalked off, and perhaps harshly, after the TMO intervened for a change in bind at the maul.
Cardiff were dealt a further blow when Rey Lee-Lo departed for a HIA following a heavy collision with Hendriske, in which he got his head on the wrong side,
However, the Blue and Blacks were beginning to grow into the game with Matthew Morgan having two key moments. First his clever grubber, with Summerhill on the outside, earned a 50:22, and minutes later the wing used him as the perfect decoy to dummy past the Lions defence and burst over.
Evans was again on target to cut the deficit to 11-points and give his side some hope at half-time approached. Hendriske attempted a 60 metre penalty on the stroke of half-time and while it appeared to have the distance, it was slightly off-target.
While Cardiff were slow out of the blocks in the first-half, there was no repeat in the second and they claimed a second try within five minutes of the restart.
They displayed their intent from the off and soon earned an attacking opportunity following a superb piece of counter-rucking. Lloyd Williams twice changed the direction of attack, Corey Domachowski combined with Dmitri Arhip and the ball was then spread wide to Botham, who stepped inside desperate defence to touch down.
Evans converted to bring Cardiff within four points and they were unfortunate when the Lions stretched that to seven after referee Chris Busby changed his mind after awarding the visitors a scrum penalty.
Cardiff continued to cause the hosts problems and Summerhill tore throw their defence after Evans, switched play to the left. He released Botham on the outside but he could not claim a second as the cover defence drove him into touch.
Hendriske kept the scoreboard ticking for the hosts, and Cardiff out of losing bonus-point territory, as the game began to break up.
The Blue and Blacks pressed for a third try, after a huge kick to the corner from Evans, and the Lions infringed on multiple occasions but remained unscathed and Cardiff were soon down to 14.
It was hugely unfortunate for Kristian Dacey, who had just come on and was looking to clear a player over the ball as Cardiff turned the screw. But just as he committed, another Lions player suddenly sat up and Dacey could do nothing to avoid colliding with the players’ head.
TMO Ben Whitehouse intervened to highlight the collision but fortunately referee Busby deemed it was accidental and there was more than enough mitigating factors to downgrade to a yellow card.
It set up a difficult finale for Cardiff, who had been the stronger team in the final quarter and were pressing for a crucial third try.
However, it was the hosts who had the final word in Johannesburg as Vincent Tshituka crashed over in the final play to secure maximum points.